“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”
Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
Most people believe they can do two or more things at once; such as driving and texting or sitting in a meeting and checking emails. However, neuroscience research has shown that the brain does not simultaneously process. Rather, we simply switch between tasks – albeit very quickly, and each time we switch from task to task, the brain engages in a stop/start process. Unfortunately, rather than saving us time, this start/stop process is inefficient and it actually costs time.
Psychologist René Marois used fMRI to investigate the brain’s response to being confronted with multiple tasks. Marois found what he described as a “response selection bottleneck,” that occurs when the brain is forced to respond to several stimuli at once. This task-switching creates the bottleneck and results in lost time, as the brain determines which task to perform. Not only is this process inefficient, but it leaves us prone to mistakes and omissions.
Multi-tasking is essentially a process of rapidly-shifting our attention from one target to another, but this requires making a decision about where we should direct our attention. Many successful people cite their ability to pay attention as a key element of their success.
In 2004, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think,” for their experiments that inspired “The Invisible Gorilla.” Drs. Chabris and Simons instructed their test subjects to focus on a simple task, such as counting students passing a ball in a circle. The study found that people became so focused on their counting, that they failed to notice a person dressed in a gorilla suit walk into the circle. This simple exercise demonstrated how people overestimate their ability to multi-task and when they attempt to do so, they are apt to miss very important and obvious details.
Failing to notice the person in a gorilla suit can be funny, but failing to notice that the traffic has stopped because you are texting is not funny. Recent data show that texting has become the most common cause of distracted driving accidents, and it is rapidly being seen as the “new drunk driving.” In 2015, the most recent year for which there are U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, distracted driving crashes caused 3,500 fatalities and close to 400,000 injuries. We simply cannot effectively do things at once.
David Sanbonmatsu, professor of psychology at the University of Utah said, “When people multi-task, often they do multiple things badly.” This has very important ramifications for the culture of multi-tasking in the workplace. Managers and leaders should not overwhelm their staff with multiple tasks and they should encourage their direct reports to focus on completing single assignments in order to limit distraction and maximize productivity.
Dr. Edward Hallowell, a renowned Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder expert and author of CrazyBusy, calls multi-tasking a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” Hallowell has conceptualized a condition, “Attention Deficit Trait,” as a “response to the hyperkinetic environment in which we live.” According to Hallowell, the hallmark symptoms of Attention Deficit Trait mimic those of AD/HD and he asserts “Never in history has the human brain been asked to track so many data points.” Hallowell has stated that limiting multi-tasking is essential and he claims that ADT is damaging to our economy. Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking (i.e., information overload) costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.
Despite our belief that we can effectively do two things at one, science shows that this is not true. In fact, research show that people who think they are good at multi-tasking are just wrong – they typically have a lower capacity for simultaneous thought. Accepting this reality is the first step to doing something about it. For those who want to increase their productivity, multi-tasking is not the answer. The best way to begin is by carving out a set period of time to focus on one task and to eliminate potential distractions, such as screens – computer, phone, etc. Close your office door and focus. Take breaks, but do not jump from one task to another.
Psychologist Paul Atchley (2010) wrote in the Harvard Business:
“Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that multitaskers do less and miss information. It takes time (an average of 15 minutes) to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction such as an email. Efficiency can drop by as much as 40%. Long-term memory suffers and creativity — a skill associated with keeping in mind multiple, less common, associations — is reduced.”
The bottom line is, put away your phone (especially when you drive), avoid distraction and focus on one thing at a time. Doing one thing well beats doing many things poorly.