25 November 2008 10:41 AM

The Myth of Multitasking

by Dr. Rick

With apologies to all the women who’ve sung “I’m a Woman,” that paean to female rapid multitasking (“I can wash 44 pairs of socks and have them hanging out on the line/I can starch and iron two dozen shirts ‘fore you can count from one to nine/I can scoop up a great big dipper full of lard from the dripping can, throw it in the skillet, go out and do my shopping, be back ‘fore it melts in the pan…”), it makes a better song than reality.


The truth, research and common sense repeatedly tell us, is that “multitasking” is a lot of hooey, especially if you’re trying to do a bunch of really important things at once, like homework and studying for a test.  Come on, admit it, you know that’s true.


(Who made up that word, anyway?  Multitasking.  It sounds so accomplished, so skillful, so success driven, so valuable.  The truth is, it’s none of those.  We fell for it like we fell for other ridiculous concepts, like cigarettes, SUVs, and political advertising.)


A recent report by Jon Hamilton on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition (http://www.npr.org/) asks whether teens may be “muddling their brains” as they try to do too many things at once.  Sure, people tell us they’re really, really good at juggling their daily tasks; some even say they get a rush from it.  But increasingly, research tells us that’s not always the case.


Depending on the research study, there can be a decrease in concentration and effectiveness of 20%-40% as we multitask.  There are similar reductions in performance and increases in oversights, mistakes and inefficiency.  Multitasking hinders our attention to details.  To make matters worse, our efficiency decreases and our concentration lowers with each task we add.


In fact, some studies show a drop in IQ points for workers distracted by email, phone calls and other interruptions as they work. (A BBC study says the effect is more than the effect of marijuana!)


And yet we still insist that we’re good at multitasking. 


Well, here’s the truth.  We may believe we’re good at it, but we’re really not.  We really can’t study for a test while text messaging or surfing the net.  We know that in our hearts – and maybe on our report cards – so why do we persist?  What causes our need to fill every moment with e-stimulation?  Why do we shrink from reflective quiet time?


Well, that’s a question for deeper, quiet consideration, without interruptions.  For now, here are some things to consider to help us break the tyranny of multitasking:


  1. Learn to prioritize.  Who are you trying to convince that all the things you’re juggling at any one moment are of equal importance?
  2. Plan, coordinate.  You’ll always have lots of projects to do, so you may as well learn good time-management skills now.
  3. Get more control over your time.  It’s your life.  Control it.  Don’t cede control to the latest thing that buzzes its way into your consciousness.  (My Blackberry is vibrating, demanding, as I write this.)
  4. Recognize time wasters and get rid of them, at least while you’re working.  (I popped the Blackberry in a drawer.)
  5. Organize yourself.  This can be hard, but with patience and some help from a study buddy or another person whom you respect, you can do it.  Have a role model you can emulate.
  6. Stay organized.  This can be even harder, but the rewards are great.  Persistence pays.
  7. Break down big tasks into smaller ones.  Talk to anyone who’s achieved a big goal, and you’ll hear this.
  8. Teach yourself how to handle interruptions promptly.  (The Blackberry in the drawer.)  This doesn’t mean immediately, breaking your concentration, but within a reasonable amount of time.  Train interrupters not to expect instant responses.  Remember, it’s your life.
  9. Know when and how to say “no.”  This doesn’t have to be a big deal.  “I’m sorry, but I’m working on something very important to me, and my schedule just won’t allow that right now.”  Your friends will understand, admire and even respect and maybe emulate your new determination.  Start a trend.   
  10. Keep a quiet space just for you.  You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll come to appreciate quiet.  It’s as “addictive” as multitasking!

This doesn’t mean you’ll never multitask ever again.  There will be times when it’s appropriate – times that are not supposed to be devoted to study or work and times when concentration and attention to detail aren’t vital.  You’ll be a better judge of that when you’ve learned to master your tasks and not let them master you.

We’d love to hear your ideas about multitasking.  What’s worked for you?  What hasn’t? Please share your comments.




Add comment


  • Comment
  • Preview

Blog Posting Rules

This blog is for the good of education - for students, for teachers and for parents. I very much value a two-way communication with you and welcome and encourage your comments and feedback. However, to facilitate a constructive conversation that is beneficial to everyone in this online community, I expect the same respect in your comments that I present in my blog.

Read the full Dr. Rick Blog Posting Rules.