The Myth and Danger of Multitasking (Part 1 of 2)

  • Have you noticed a change in your attention span over the last 10 years?  (I have.)
  • Has it been more challenging for you to read ONE book at the time, all the way through to the last page? (I have)
  • How often do you walk down the street or go for a run sans earbuds, sans your phone? 
  • Do you text while walking (and bump into things and people)? I used to. Had to stop because it made me feel nauseous.
  • Do you text while driving (and know that you really shouldn’t but can’t stop) ?
  • How many tabs do you currently have open in your browser? (it's OK, nobody else needs to know)
  • When you sit down to work at your computer, do you find yourself mechanically clicking left and right to check the weather, who's posting what on FB or read a NY Times article (that someone mentioned on FB) and get massively sidetracked from your task at hand? 

Those scenarios have become increasingly familiar to many of us. There is a real multi-tasking epidemic out there. Oh but wait! The latest research shows that multi-tasking is not possible for the human brain. Instead, it is an illusion that we’ve bought into. And it is causing us to waste a lot of time, energy, creativity and concentration power.

On The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Electronic devices have become ubiquitous. Since the first telephone call was made in 1876 new technologies have made it increasingly easier to keep in touch 24/7. With personal computers that have shrunk to the size of an iPhone, WI-fi and Cloud technologies, we can now access all the information we need (and often don’t need) from anywhere, anytime. Many of us do. In an attempt to convince ourselves that we could process so much information flowing at us non-stop and at such rapid speed we've created a new word: multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking for some has become a new activity in and of itself. Some employers even require “multi-tasking” as a skill. And most multi-taskers out there truly believe they can efficiently handle several tasks at the same time. But is it really possible? We’d like to think so. Except that the scientific research on the subject is categorical: human beings are not physiologically wired (at this point in time) to perform more than one task at the time. It is simply neurologically impossible.

Cliff Nass, author of "The Man Who Lied to His Laptop" and professor of communications at Stanford University in California, has studied the brains of serial multi-taskers and the results of his research are unequivocal: multitasking is a myth. This is what he says: 

People who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking. The brain doesn’t focus on several tasks at the time but quickly goes from one to another.
— Cliff Nass

More like multi-switching if you will.
He goes on to say that although multi-taskers believe they can focus on one task at the time if they choose to, the research proves otherwise. In fact it shows that so-called multi-taskers are lousy at single-tasking! Their brains are so used to quickly hopping from task to task that they have lost the ability to focus on any one task fully (even when they want to).

What's Happening to Our Brain?

God only knows! All this could seem worrisome. Or it is just part of our evolution as a species? I do believe the internet is changing our brains, I can feel it in myself. And apparently I am not the only one. In his book The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes:

Over the last few years, I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memor

This is not necessarily bad. Truth is I really don’t know and I don’t think anybody knows. But, and this is just a supposition, maybe this re-wiring of our brains is part of the Divine Plan for the human race. Maybe electronic devices and the internet are playing an important role in this evolution. Maybe reading 300-page books will one day be obsolete (if it isn't already for Generation Z), because our brains will have caught up with the super-fast technologies and developed the capacity to process an infinite amount of data simultaneously. Who knows? Sometimes I think that’s where we’re headed but it's just my gut feeling!

In Part 2 of this article I'll share with you what happens when we attempt to multi-task too often and how that compares to single-tasking. I'll also give you practical ways to manage the constant stimulation and co-habit peacefully with your electronic gadgets.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you in the comment section below. Have you noticed a change in your attention span over the last few years? Do you consider yourself a multi-tasker? Can you unplug at will or do you find it difficult to escape the world of electronic devices?

Take it easy,

Sylvie