As mobile technology has become more portable and more powerful, we are able to do many more things (phone calls, texting, watching movies) in more contexts (driving, walking down the street, waiting in line) than ever before. Multitasking should be at an all-time high.
But as some recent books about the nature of attention have made clear, multitasking is largely a myth. When we think we are multitasking, we are not so much doing two things at once as we are rapidly shifting our attention back and forth between those two things. And all that shifting dramatically depletes our functioning, making it hard to do either thing efficiently or well.
Here's a quick experiment to prove this point. Write the phrase "MULTITASKING IS A MYTH" on a piece of paper, but intersperse the numbers 1 - 17 after each letter (M 1 U 2 L 3 T 4... etc.). Now, write out the same phrase as you normally would - no numbers in between - and when you finish that, write out the sequence of numbers 1 - 17. See the difference? [Experiment adapted from this guy.]
While there are some "mindless" tasks that we can do while doing something else (folding laundry in front of the TV, for example) most everyday activities require much more focussed attention than you might think.
Ever turn down the music in your car while looking for parking? Surf the internet while on a conference call and then realize you haven't been listening for the last 5 minutes? These are examples of the natural limitations of our attention. Better to give in to these limits and do one thing at a time, well.
Turn your screens off. Turn off your monitor, close your laptop and stop trying to read the headlines or catch up on email while you're on a conference call. Be on the call.
Stop the dinging, pinging, flashing email alerts. For goodness sake, if you're trying to get focused work done, turn off your email alerts so you aren't getting pulled into whatever shows up in your inbox. If you have to stay in the loop while you're getting other things done, schedule a 10 minute email break at the end of every hour, or better yet, every 90 minutes.
Remember that multitasking has consequences. Typos in work emails can make a bad impression, a distracted tone of voice can be read as standoffish, and of course texting while driving can lead to accidents. There are very real costs to trying to push beyond the rather modest limits of our attention.
Next time you are tempted to split your attention between two or more tasks, ask yourself if the email, relationship, or your safety is important enough to you to get your full attention.
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