The Multi-tasking Myth

The human brain is a fascinating place capable of amazing feats; unless we’re tired, hung-over, or it’s Monday. But can we actually do several things at once?

Neuroscience says no, we can’t. The brain, even on its best day, cannot focus on two things at once. When you think you are multi-tasking what you’re actually doing is switching your focus from one thing to the other constantly. Think about this; you’re writing a report, or article, on your computer and you get a text message. You check the text and begin a conversation. While you wait for the text reply you go back to the report, you get the reply and go back to texting and so on. You are not doing both at the same time, you’re switching constantly between the two. The same thing applies in a faster and less obvious way with all those things we tend to do at the same time, call people while we’re driving, text and walk, hell we even close our eyes in order to hear better!

While we may think we’re being super efficient by doing many things at once we are really doing ourselves and those around us a disservice. The downfalls of multi-tasking:

  • It’s actually more time consuming. A recent study asked people to draw two lines on a piece of paper, on one line they were to write ‘I am a great multi-tasker’ and on the other write the numbers 1-20 in order. First go round was to do these tasks one at a time, the second time was to switch between the two. It took twice as long to do both at the same time, and there were more mistakes. There is a stop/start mechanism going on in the brain when we switch tasks and it takes a moment to reset.
  • Nothing gets done as well as it could have been. We are far more likely to make mistakes when we’re switching our attention between tasks. The brain is trying to switch attention and may bring in things from one task to the other. Ever been talking to someone while you were writing something down and wrote what you were saying instead of what you needed to write?
  • Creativity and problem solving is decreased. Multi-tasking is using up the ‘working memory’ or temporary space in the brain that is important for problem solving and creativity.
  • You’re dangerous, to yourself and others. Walking and texting leads to many people walking into poles or tripping over, which is hilarious but it also leads people onto the road in traffic. Talking, or worse, trying to text while driving takes your attention from the road and traffic.

Doing one thing at a time means you do it quicker and better, and you also only have to deal with that task once. The people in your life will also appreciate you more if you’re actually 100% there when you’re with them.

IMAGE (c) Lamp Photography

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