It’s not unusual for me to be reading 3 or 4 books at the same time (well, not at exactly the same time). I might be reading a couple marketing books, a detective novel and a spiritually enriching book, reading a chapter or two from each before going to sleep at night.
I might find myself reading my email while I’m catching up with someone on the phone.
Or carrying on a conversation with my wife while we’re watching a movie – or while I’m channel-surfing.
All in all, I’ve always thought I did it pretty well. Over the last several years, though, I have come to doubt the quality of the work I produce while I’m attempting to multitask. Like when my wife asked me “what does an elephant have to do with my question about your building the frames for my raised bed garden?” (The TV had just flashed up a video of a scene at a zoo.)
That kind of stuff is embarrassing.
While multitasking is quite at home in the world of computers, it’s just a bit gnarly for their operators. And it turns out that I’m not the only one whose work suffers from trying to accomplish too many tasks at once. A February 28 article titled “Divided Attention” in The Chronicle Review (an online news magazine covering higher education) sheds some light on this subject. That article talks about how most of us are pretty bad at multitasking, even though we have the feeling that we’re quite competent at it. I found it pretty fascinating…
“Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their abilities,” says Clifford I. Nass, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. “But there’s evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people.”
The article delves into the debate as to whether laptop computers should even be allowed in classrooms, because they have been shown to be distractions not only to those using them, but also to those around them. The ever-present internet (or just games like FreeCell) constantly beckon. And while instructors don’t begin to agree on whether laptops are good or bad tools in the classroom, one veteran professor is quoted in the article as having said:
“I’m teaching a class of first-year students,” says David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. “This might well have been the very first class they walked into in their college careers. I handed out a sheet that said, ‘Thou shalt have no electronic devices in the classroom.’ … I don’t want to see students with their computers out, because you know they’re surfing the Web. I don’t want to see them taking notes. I want to see them paying attention to me.”
He even means he doesn’t want any taking of notes with paper and pen – he believes that will distract students from hearing and absorbing everything he has to say. And it turns out he has some pretty good research to back it up.
I guess it’s one thing that my Mom has told me all my life not to try to do too many things at once, because my brain wasn’t intended to do that. But it’s another thing when educators and scientists, wearing real lab coats and carrying stainless steel clipboards say it.
So I’m throwing in the towel. My major multitasking days are officially over.
Oh yes – I will always attempt to multitask simple actions I think will make things more efficient. When I leave my desk for the outer office, I’ll grab that check to copy, that bill to mail, that receipt to file and that piece of junk mail to shred. I just hope that when I get there, I won’t get distracted and mail the receipt, file the junk mail, copy the bill and shred the check.
And if I really want to live my life with excellence, I need to concentrate on either reading and replying to my email, or listening to a friend on the phone – but not both at the same time. Or using the mute button on the remote, and having an uninterrupted conversation with my wife. That way I can focus on building the relationships that will truly enrich my life.
Maybe you can relate.