A popular buzzword heard around water coolers in offices spanning the globe is multitasking. The presumed ability to do more than one thing at the same time is seen as the hallmark of a great employee.
People imagine themselves as multi-armed Hindu goddesses or gods of efficiency, aiming to manage their time better by doing many things at the same time.
Unfortunately, multitasking is self- deception. Multitasking is, in the words of psychiatrist Edward Hallowell a mythical activity in that people believe they can do two or more tasks simultaneously just as effectively as one.1
Multitasking is a mythical activity
Unfortunately, the feeble human mind is not able to focus attention on more than one thing simultaneously. This limitation is no better illustrated than by a magician’s ability to deceive people, wonderfully demonstrated by Tommy Wonder in the video below. Magicians use techniques based on our limitations in attending to more than one thing simultaneously to create the illusion of magic.2 Neuroscientific research supports this practical knowledge. A neural network in the frontal lobe acts as a bottleneck of information processing that severely limits our ability to multitask. Not only do tasks take longer, but the quality is also reduced.3 What managers can learn from magicians and cognitive scientists is that we should focus on only one task at a time.
Edward M. Hallowell. Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life. 2007. Ballantine Books. ↩
Martinez-Conde, Susana and Macknik, Stephen L. (2010) Sleight of mind. New York: Henry Bolt. ↩