The Multitasking Myth


By Samuel Greengard

According to a recent study by Nielsen, 40 percent of tablet and smartphone owners use these devices while they watch TV. They're checking e-mail, surfing the web, visiting social networking sites, checking sports scores and looking up product info, particularly during ads.

It's safe to say we've become a nation of multitaskers. We do it at work. We do it at home. We do it in the car. We brag about our ability to juggle an array of tasks simultaneously. It's no irony that the term "multitasking" comes from the computer world, where computers multitask all the time. However, computers aren't people. They're actually smarter and better than us at certain things.

Study after study shows that multitasking really isn't possible and we pay a mental price. Says Michael Suman, Ph.D., research director at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California. "We simply switch back and forth from one task to another very quickly. The heaviest 'multitaskers' display signs of diminished short-term memory," he explains.

Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Basic Books, 2011), takes the thought a step further: In professional situations, "People measure their success by calls made, e-mails answered, texts replied to and contacts reached," she notes. "The paradox is that we insist our world is increasingly complex but we have created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think, uninterrupted."

But the problem doesn't stop there, Turkle says. It extends to how we work and interact. "We communicate with each other in ways that ask for almost instantaneous responses; we don't allow ourselves the space to explain complicated problems."

She and other researchers say that it's a myth that older workers should learn how to multitask from younger workers. "As we multitask our performance degrades on every task we set out to accomplish. It turns out that multitasking needs to be unlearned for serious tasks," she concludes.

I'm not sure how to address the constant bombardment of tasks and ever-greater workloads. The chaos of the digital age won't subside anytime soon. But perhaps a good first step is for all of us to stop bragging about what great multitaskers we are and recognize that if we want to solve problems and address challenges we need to take time to focus on the task at hand.

The choice is simple: do something well or do a lot of things badly.