The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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: