MULTI-TASKING: Is it a Myth or a Reality?

MultitaskingThe other day while I was cooking, I found myself humming a tune and smiling; for some reason, it caught me off guard.  I took a moment to mentally observe what I was doing and realized that it probably stemmed from the fact that I wasn’t going in multiple directions performing multiple tasks; the modern concept known as multi-tasking (and my typical MO). 

Through the years I have found it necessary to cultivate this skill and have felt I mastered it well, but have I really and if I have, has it really gotten me as far as I thought?  These were the questions that I pondered as I finished the single task of making my delicious dinner.  I decided to explore more about this concept; I share with you four interesting findings I came across during my exploration.

FINDING #1

Did you know that the term ‘multi-tasking’ originated in the computer engineering industry?  It actually refers to the ability of a microprocessor to process several tasks simultaneously by rotating through those tasks many times per second.  The word actually was coined by IBM and appeared in print in 1965.  Having worked for IBM for many years and around large mainframe systems that did exactly what I describe, it was easy for me to picture this happening quite clearly.

Once I understood the meaning behind the terminology, I turned my exploration to the psychology behind the concept.

FiNDING #2

Extensive psychology research in the 1990’s showed that multi-tasking is not as workable as single-tasking.  Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell described it as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one”.  A study done by the researchers at the University of Utah (published in the journal PLOS One) also concluded that those who multi-tasked the most in real life were actually much worse at juggling tasks than people who rarely multitasked.  It seems that there is much evidence to support that multitasking is not as beneficial as single tasking.  Interesting isn’t it?

Now on to exploring the physical side of multitasking.

FINDING #3

Physiologically, the brain is not capable of doing two tasks (of the same similarity) at the same time.  It can, however, process two dissimilar activities which often fools us into thinking we are “multi-tasking”.  This is where I began to see discrepancies in my findings; opinions quickly varied widely.  According to Vanderbilt University Psychologist, Rene Marois, when the brain “bottlenecks” in response to selection overload, it is then required to decide which activity is most important before completing each task and therefore cannot be trained to multi-task.  However, another Psychologist, Dr. David Meyer, of the University of Michigan, refutes ‘bottlenecking’ and instead introduces the idea that the brain experiences ‘adaptive executive control’ – placing priorities on each activity thereby making the brain trainable to multi-task.

So the question begins to form: Can our brain truly multi-task or can it not?  I turn to my own experiences and move into the more concrete world of everyday living to explore this question.

FINDING #4

My own personal experience has been that in order for me to accomplish more tasks, I needed to not only employ a multi-tasking technique, but to master it.  For many years I managed working full time, a family, a home and personal relationships.  If I hadn’t learned how to multi-task, too many things would fall through the cracks and I would not accomplish everything I needed to do.  Knowing this, I strongly believe that multitasking is possible.  The question then becomes:  Is multi-tasking as productive as we all think and does it actually save us time?

I found this article on MindTools.com that asks these very same questions and the information is fascinating.  (Don’t check it out until you’re done reading this post and commenting – no multitasking allowed here!)

Here’s what I conclude:

  • While multi-tasking may allow us to get more tasks done at once, the quality of our work is significantly diminished.
  • Multi-tasking significantly reduces our ability to focus and
  • It can actually rob us of time and dramatically increase our stress.

So, as I ponder this concept of multi-tasking and re-evaluate whether it actually helps my daily performance, I ask you this:

Do you find yourself multi-tasking more than you should? Do you think focusing on each task individually would bring you not only greater rewards, but less stress and maybe even greater happiness? Most importantly: Is  multi-tasking a myth or just OUR reality? I’d love to hear your thoughts…

12 thoughts on “MULTI-TASKING: Is it a Myth or a Reality?

  1. Great information here! Personally, multi-tasking is how I get most items done. I do process singular tasks on my schooling and per client, but when it comes to family and personal endeavors, I tend to multi-task, thinking I am creating an efficient path of closure. Guess, I will have to study my own habits, you gave me some mind food to chew one :)

    • Lina,

      Thank you and I’m so glad to give you food for thought. In my 20’s I couldn’t even imagine multi-tasking – I lived in the moment; in my 30’s (when I was in the heart of parenting & working, I couldn’t live without multi-tasking. As I moved into my 40’s and started dealing with multiple medical issues and recovery, I started to understand the power of focus. Now that I’ve hit my 50’s, I’ve decided to adopt a more single-tasked way of living. We all come to it from different perspectives at different times of our lives and we need to remain flexible. Enjoy the journey.

      Lynn

  2. I believe multi-tasking is overrated and for those exact reasons you stated above. We may be getting more done, but the quality of those moments is completely diminished when we try to do too many things at once. I, for one, have stopped multi-tasking and am loving life a little more these days. :)

  3. Great info here! I multi task all the time and I feel like sometimes I am less efficient as a result. So I am going to try to set a timer and focus on one task at a time and give that task my full attention and see what happens!

    • Thanks Michelle! :)

      I actually spent all of today SINGLE TASKING and the amount of things I accomplished was amazing! More amazing was how easily I flew through my task list and how it made me feel. I set designated times with the alarm on my phone and moved from one thing to the next. I have a clear desk and completed tasks and it really does make you feel better. Drop me a line and let me know how it works for you!

      Lynn

  4. In my mind, having multiple tasks to accomplish is not multi-tasking. Talking on the telephone while cooking dinner is multi-tasking. When I have a lot to do or I see multiple projects “staring me in the face,” I stop. I focus on what I need to get done and prioritize. I then take one project/task at a time and work on it until it is done. Like picking up/cleaning the house. I take one room at a time. In the end it gets done and done well. As opposed to running around the house and never feeling like I’ve accomplished anything. By concentrating on one project at a time I can see what I’ve accomplished (before moving onto the next project). It’s a good feeling to see a clean bathroom even if the rest of the house is a disaster.

    • Hi Melinda. Thanks for your comment. Whenever you are dissatisfied with a result, it bears in mind to go back to what you are doing and re-evaluate. Hope some of the tips will help when you are doing that. Lynn

  5. Let’s go back to the beginning of your article. Cooking and humming. As a chef, I must multi-task so that everything is ready to be served at the same time, all at the correct temperature, correctly seasoned. This can include several items depending on the service. When all is working well, I am humming as I go. It’s a flow, where you have many projects going at the same time, all at different points in their production and yet they must all arrive at the same place, at the same time. Of course, I never think of it as multi-tasking and a lot of the time I don’t even think of it as work.

    • Hello Chef William. I think you have presented the one place where I would agree that you MUST multi-task in order to accomplish the end result! :) As long as you are focusing on each task and getting successful results, then who am I to suggest rocking the boat? It’s very heart warming to hear someone say they do not consider their “job” as work. Thanks for you comments. Lynn Spiro

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