Real Multitasking is a Myth

May 26, 2014

I don’t know why some people are so proud of their ability to multitask. Most of us do it for mundane things without even realizing that we’re doing it.

Ask any mother who has to drive a carload of squabbling children to school if she considers settling their arguments while driving, the same thing as multitasking, and she will probably look at you as if you’re one sandwich short of a picnic. In her view, it’s one and the same thing and has nothing to do with multitasking.

Think about all the people who handle telephone calls while typing emails and scheduling appointments. In the strict sense, this could be called multitasking but it’s nothing special; we all do it for the various and sundry things that are part of our daily life. It’s what we’ve gotten accustomed to doing.

It’s the things that take extra thought that makes me question the validity of the kind of multitasking that is implied by definition of doing multiple tasks at the same time. From what I have seen, those who have to think about what they are doing, while they are doing it, are usually not brilliant at multitasking, if, in fact, they are really multitasking.

If you are reading a book and someone asks you a question, you can continue to read at the same time the other person is talking, but if you have to think about what you want to answer the other person, you are no longer able to continue reading at that precise moment. What you are doing is switching your focus to something else. You may be able to switch back and forth quickly, but you are not multitasking, you are just switching gears quickly.

I haven’t yet met anyone who can think of two disparate thoughts simultaneously; I’ve only encountered people who can switch their focus quickly and then return that focus to their original task just as quickly.

If there truly are people who are capable of multitasking, I would want to know how many mistakes they made at that time and how long those tasks took them as opposed to how many mistakes they usually make, and how much time it usually takes them, when they are not multitasking.

My guess is that they make a lot of mistakes and it takes a lot longer when they try to multitask.

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