There’s no such thing as multi-tasking.

Miller quote2

Photo by Ryan McGuire, Gratisography

It wasn’t too long ago that “multi-tasking” was a standard term in both job descriptions and resumes. In fact, a quick search on Workopolis, Canada’s largest online job search site, results in a list of more than 2,300 jobs with this requirement. In the past I’ve been guilty of including this “skill” on my resume, but no longer. Why?

Because multi-tasking is a myth.

Instinctively I’ve known this for years. I just can’t get as much done when I’m trying to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Sure, I can walk and chew gum simultaneously, but write an email while talking on the phone? Not a chance.

Turns out what we’ve thought of as multi-tasking is actually switching our attention very rapidly from one task to another. The problem is, each time we make this switch we lose time as the executive function of our brain adjusts to the new task. The result is lost productivity, not an increase, as I used to think.

In this brief video, neuroscientist Earl Miller at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explains what’s happening in our brain during our attempts at multi-tasking:

Sometimes attempts at multi-tasking can have deadly consequences. It takes just a quick glance down at your cell phone while driving to travel a fair distance without your eyes on the road. If you’re lucky, there’s nothing in the way and you stay on the road. Did you know that drivers engaged in text messaging on a cell phone are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or near crash event compared with non-distracted drivers? (Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, 2010)

So, how do we resist the pressure — usually self-imposed — to “multi-task”?

There are no easy answers, given not only the pervasiveness of the multi-tasking myth in our culture, but the real benefits we can derive from the practice.

A study published in the Journal of Communication found that, even though productivity was significantly reduced, the students participating in the research multi-tasked because they found it emotionally satisfying. Multi-tasking was relaxing, entertaining and fun.

To combat the urge to attempt multi-tasking, Dr. Miller suggests:

  • Plan ahead
  • Work in a quiet environment
  • Remove distractions
  • Plan to be productive, rather than “overly productive by multi-tasking”

Have you developed strategies to  increase your effectiveness at “single tasking”? I would love to hear about them!

Liz signature


About Liz Leake

I'm a communicator and writer living in Mississauga.
This entry was posted in Capacity, Learning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to There’s no such thing as multi-tasking.

  1. Bobby Butler says:

    Great work, and you’re right …MT is a myth! Unless, of course you are a GMH (genetically modified Human). I’ve found these GMH to work in labs of one sort or the other.


  2. jen chapman says:

    I find that if I make a point of tracking my time at my desk for the different projects I’m working on, almost as if I were billing my time, it really helps my focus.


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