The Myth of Multitasking

Multitasking has become a completely acceptable and, in fact, enviable skill of the 21st century.  As Crenshaw points out in his book The Myth of Multitasking however, multitasking is not only inefficient, it’s also humanly impossible.


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"Our… research offers neurological evidence that the brain can not effectively do two things at once."
- Rene Marois, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Vanderbilt University, as quoted in The Myth of Multitasking, page 18

“Multitasking” was created originally as a term to define computer activity.  When a computer runs multiple programs or functions at once, we call that “multitasking”.  Even in regards to computers though, this is not 100% accurate.  A computer, like a human mind, is only capable of performing one task at a time.  For a computer, the “switching” between tasks happens so fast, it appears as though the machine is performing multiple tasks at once.  The downtime between tasks is virtually non-existent, so the term “multitasking” is acceptable for computers.  But we’re not computers.  And the cost of switching tasks for us is noticeable.

As Crenshaw has pointed out, a much more appropriate term for what humans call multitasking is “switchtasking”. As long as our brains are trying to perform more than one mental task at a time, we are actually jumping from one task to the other.  So what’s the big deal?  Well, it turns out that switching between two tasks slows us down.  Sometimes dramatically.  Our brains need to re-register where we left off, and then produce the next logical step.  In some cases (paying attention to the news report vs reading the stock ticker) it may only take a fraction of a second to reconnect, although enough of those those nano-seconds still add up to make a real difference.  And, in other cases, it can take much longer to refocus (returning to a client proposal after being interrupted by a co-worker, for example).

No matter how “good” you get at multitasking, you will always be operating slower than someone who can focus their attention on one task at a time.  The true skill is in learning to operate effectively in our ADHD world and, in fact, to minimize the amount of time we spend multitasking.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Switch Operator

"If you and I don’t set up a schedule and protect our time, we allow ourselves to be run over by the traffic of information."
- The Myth of Multitasking, page 61

The first step in minimizing your multitasking is to recognize that some “switches” are active switches (self initiated) while others are passive switches (responses to outside interruptions).

In his book The 4-Hour Work Week, Timothy Ferris provides countless examples of how to minimize both active and passive switches in your life.

In generalities, reducing the number of active switches in your day is something you have control over, and really becomes a matter of will power.  It’s not always easy.  We’ve been raised and trained in a world that encourages us to jump from task to task.  If you’re honest with yourself though, how often do you really need to check your email?

Commit, for one day, to working on each task for a predetermined period of time.  Decide, for one day, not to actively jump from project to project.  Once you’ve made the choice to minimize the active switches, all that remains is dealing with the passive switches.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Open for Business

"Post your personal store hours. When are you personally open for business?"
- The Myth of Multitasking, page 58

How have you conditioned the outside world to expect you to respond?  I have a client who has her phone on permanent “Do Not Disturb” mode and has her voicemail message set up with the following:

“Hi you’ve reached Kathy.  I’m in and out of meetings today, but will be checking voicemail at 12pm and 5pm.  For emergencies only, you can call my cell at: (number).  Otherwise, please leave me a message and I will look forward to speaking with you then.”

Simple, courteous, and completely removes that passive switch from her life.  And the best part – I always hear back from her in a timely fashion.  This particular client recently went on maternity leave, and I just learned that her company has hired three people to replace her.  Turns out, this stuff really works.

So, is the world of the Blackberry a bad place to be? Absolutely not.  But just like any technology, it makes a far better servant than it does master.  We need to appreciate the freedom and flexibility that such tools provide, yet also realize that we do not need to respond every time it buzzes, beeps or rings.   Every job and set of responsibilities is different.  Maybe you don’t have the freedom of setting up a phone system like my client.  But I would bet money on the fact that there is room for improvement in your day.  As Crenshaw brilliantly illustrates, multitasking is the opposite of efficiency.  As soon as you acknowledge that and work on improving real efficiency (not just the art of being busy), you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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