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Multitasking – Myth and Illusion

Back in 2004, Jonathan Spira wrote about The Thumb Generation, knowledge workers that are found in many lands, often without so official a designation, but who are instantly recognizable by their indefatigable use of their BlackBerry or other handheld device to read mail and exchange text messages.

At that time, he also noted that productivity gains from multitasking were “illusory at best”.

But what about the Millenials, I hear readers ask?  After all, they are a generation that was born multitasking?  Won’t they do better?  Current research suggests that this is also illusory.

The issue got some degree of attention with a front-page story in the New York Times  and news reports on multitasking seem to be popping out every day now.

One article in this month’s issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, spotlights The Myth of Multitasking via an interview with our chief analyst.

“You only think you are more productive,” Jonathan explained.  “[But] you’re really drinking the Kool-Aid of productivity.”  Over time, he explains, the relentless intrusions that fuel frenetic multitasking can really add up.  As we all know, the average knowledge worker loses 2.1 hours per day to unnecessary interruptions (anything from an in-person visit to an instant message or text message) plus recovery time (the time it takes to get back to where you were, something we found may be as much as 10 to 20 times the length of the interruption itself).  It bears repeating that the annual cost to the U.S. economy is $650 billion per annum for unnecessary interruptions and recovery time.

The problem with multitasking is that there is no such thing. The brain is capable of one thought at a time.  Speeding this up can only mean you are switching between different tasks more rapidly.  This unto itself wastes time although one might feel very efficient while “multitasking.”

But who doesn’t multitask nowadays?  I will admit to checking e-mail occasionally during a conference call or sending a few instant messages.  In fact, oftentimes [during a meeting] we have a back channel via IM that effectively comprises a parallel meeting to the one we are attending.  Television news (for those of us who still watch news on TV) reports regularly on the dangers of multitasking while driving.  These not only include using the phone, but applying make-up and reading.

The fact is that most people feel compelled to multitask for fear of falling behind.  The truth is that it’s the very process of multitasking that may cause this.