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The Myth of Multitasking

The people who stare at their laptops or phones during my workshops or presentations undoubtedly think they can effectively listen to me and use technology at the same time. After all, they’ve probably been told that multitasking is not only possible – it’s necessary.

Indeed, in her article Top 10 reasons employers want to hire you on, Rachel Zupek said employers value multitaskers and provided this quote from Susan Stern, founder and president of a public relations and marketing communications agency, as evidence: “Business today moves at supersonic speed, and effectively managing a variety of different projects simultaneously is essential.”

Unfortunately, the definition of multitasking is “the performance of multiple tasks at one time,” not “effectively managing a variety of different projects simultaneously.” Thus, we’re led to believe by Zupek and others that we need to be able to (or can) perform several tasks concurrently when we really can’t. This false belief has led to a number of serious problems, which Amanda MacMillan identified in her article 12 reasons to stop multitasking now!

According to MacMillan, multitasking:

Dampens our creativity. It “causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time,” said cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin. Additionally, a University of London study demonstrated that multitasking dumbs us down (the IQ of multitasking participants dropped to the average range of an 8-year-old child).

Slows us down. A University of Utah study demonstrated that participants took longer to reach their destinations when they talked on their phones while driving.

Causes us to make mistakes. In the article Multitasking – a medical and mental hazard, Patrick J. Skerrett described a medical mishap in which a resident was using her cellphone to send an order to stop a medication from being administered to a patient. Midway through, she received a text from a friend about a party. She responded to the text and then forgot to finish the order. As a result, the patient received too much medicine and had to have open-heart surgery to save his life.

Is stressful. Employees with constant access to email had higher heart rates according to one UC Irvine study.

Makes us miss out on life. In a Western Washington University study, 75 percent of college students walking across campus while talking on their cell phones didn’t see a clown riding a unicycle.

Negatively affects our memory. Interrupting one task to focus on another can disrupt short term memory according to a UC San Francisco study.

Hurts our relationships. A University of Essex study demonstrated that just having a cell phone nearby during personal conversations causes friction and a lack of trust.

Makes us overeat. A review of 24 studies revealed that being distracted while eating prevents us from feeling full.

Can be dangerous. According to the Department of Transportation, 3,477 people died and 391,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes caused by drivers who used their cell phones in just one year.   

If multitasking is so problematic, why do we do it? Levitin said it’s because dopamine is released each time we switch tasks (like going from listening to someone to looking at a text). He also said the dopamine rewards circuit is what’s responsible for people getting addicted to cocaine and heroin (that’s why so many people are now addicted to their phones). Thus, multitasking feels good for a while because of the hit of dopamine and because of the perception that we’re getting a lot accomplished while doing it.

But, we’re not getting a lot accomplished. In fact, a University of Utah study demonstrated that participants who said they had above average multitasking skills actually scored worse on multitasking tests. In other words, if you think you’re really good at multitasking, you’re probably really not.

Additionally, trying to multitask while people talk to us causes problems for them. Even techie guru Anthony De Rosa, former Editor-in-Chief of Circa, the first media organization focused on producing news for mobile consumption, said that our frequent attention to our phones while interacting with others has eroded fundamental human courtesies.

“I’m fine with people stepping aside to check something, but when I’m standing in front of someone and in the middle of my conversation they whip out their phone, I’ll just stop talking to them and walk away. If they’re going to be rude, I’ll be rude right back.”

Why is it considered rude to look at your computer or phone when someone is talking to you? Mostly because as Americans we’re taught that making eye contact is a sign of respect: no eye contact, no respect.

In sum, multitasking is bad for you in so many ways, and doing it while I’m talking to you makes me feel disrespected.

So, if you’re going to attend one of my workshops or presentations, please don’t bring your laptop and kindly step outside the room to call or text. You can’t stare at your technological device and listen at the same time – thinking that you can is a myth.   

Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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