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The Price, and Myth, of Multitasking

Think multitasking is saving you time? Think again.

Sometimes my head hurts. Usually it's precipitated by a period of time when I'm in a state of multi-tasking chaos. I come to that state quite naturally. Those of you who know me know that I'm the poster child for ADHD. My mind loves to think three (or more) thoughts at once. Focusing on two or less thoughts is an exercise in self-control and mindfulness, neither of which is easy for me or for my ADHD cohorts. Mornings, for me, are a perfect example of my natural state, in that I'm simultaneously putting on my makeup, writing my blog, eating my breakfast and watching TV. That I don't have more typos in a given week is nothing short of miraculous.

But here's something that may not be obvious: I'm only thinking about one thing during my morning ritual - My blog. It's the only task in that list which requires any thought. I can (and often do) put on my makeup without a mirror, and eating is, much to my chagrin, something that comes equally naturally for me. The T.V. acts as white noise for me, something that I need so that I'm not distracted by other sounds that the rest of you can probably block out easily, like a dripping faucet or a horn outside.

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I can't actually concentrate on more than one thought at a time, and the reality is that none of us can. If you can stay with me here and avoid the temptation to check your Facebook and ignore the text that's beeping on your iPhone and ignore the tweets that have undoubtedly popped up in the 2 minutes since you checked Twitter, you might actually learn why.

Humans can only focus on one thought or task at a time. The concept of multitasking is actually a misnomer, as it involves continuous ‘switch-tasking,' which is to say, moving back and forth between tasks. The problem with (and the nature of) switch-tasking is that no one task gets our full attention. Instead, tasks get our partial attention. With each switch, it takes time for us to reorient to the task at hand. At the end of the day, all that reorienting adds up to an enormous amount of time wasted and we feel like we've been on an intellectual treadmill for hours. And that's when my head hurts.

For me, the ability to focus on one task at a time boils down to me employing self-control. When I let my mind do its thing, it exhausts me in its attempt to do too many things at once. In the last year, I've really cultivated the ability to focus it, if not quiet it. If you're interested in how I've done this, email me and I'd be happy to share with you the tool that has enabled this previously incomprehensible accomplishment. So why should you care?

You should care because our society is experiencing an attention crisis ~ a cognitive plague of epic proportions. Our inability to focus is eroding the intimacy in our relationships, our productivity in the workplace and our judgment when we operate automobiles while attempting to speak on the phone, the combination of which diminishes response time more than driving drunk. And my concern is that it's creating a generation of anxiety-laden people.

I shouldn't mind or complain. Anxiety-laden clients are uncomfortable enough to seek out therapy regardless of the economy, which, for me, creates something akin to a recession-proof business model. But I do mind. As a social worker, I'm looking for ways to make the world a better place (I know...I barely kept my lunch down also). And I think we're about ready for a paradigm shift the likes of which will eradicate our ability to tell where the Amish community ends and the rest of society begins. Ok. You now have permission to try and multitask again.

 

Darcy Sterling, Ph.D., is Executive Director of Alternatives Counseling in New York City.

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