Nowadays, it seems that we have much to do…oftentimes too much. So, what’s the solution? Multitasking, of course! Let’s do that cell phone business call or catch up with friends while we are driving. How about answering a few emails while working on another project on the computer? No problem! Teens seem especially fond of IMing their friends while working on homework. But we can do it all, right? We are just multitasking!
NOT SO FAST
Have you ever tried to multiply a number in your head while reading a book? How about trying to follow a movie while have a deep discussion about God, the universe, and everything with friends? We just can’t do it. While the human brain is capable of doing many tasks simultaneously, like walking and chewing gum or washing the dishes while talking on the phone (even in many of these cases, doing one affects the other), we are not designed to do complex thinking tasks at the same time. We are fighting millions of years of evolution when we try to do so. Research shows that what we are actually doing when we are “multitasking” is task-switching. For instance, when a teen is IMing friends on the computer and writing a report, they are not capable of doing both simultaneously. Rather, they are rapidly switching between the 2 tasks.
Studies have shown that our performance goes down when we are trying to do too many tasks at once. It takes a while for our brains to get back into gear when we switch from one task to another. An example from my life is when I try to keep my email program open while I work on a report. When I give in to the temptation of checking my email, invariably I take a few moments to answer the email and then get back to my report. Then it takes me at least a minute or two to pick back up my train of thought. Teens might be more used to this than adults, but studies show that they suffer the same effect: the quality of performance deteriorates because the brain must take time to adjust to the unique demands of each task. You have probably read about how people are more prone to have auto accidents when talking on their cell phones – EVEN WHEN they use the hands-free headsets.
WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?
As with most things, the first step in working on the problem is to identify it as a problem. Avoid talking on your cell phone while driving. Turn off your email or IM program when you are working on something important on the computer. Watch the movie after doing your homework. Give each task that you do the benefit of your full attention. Complete that one task, then move on to the next. Because if you are trying to multitask with the belief that you are getting more done in less time, that’s not the case. And with that extra time that you save by doing tasks serially, you can do something fun instead of more work.
Mike Brooks, Ph.D.