September 2009 - Shocking research about multitasking!
There is a prevailing notion that being a multitasker is a highly valued skill and one that is necessary in today’s demanding work place. There is a certain admiration for the worker who is able to juggle a phone call while reading and responding to email. One wonders how such people are able to focus on completing several tasks at once with high proficiency.
I recall an incident that happened several years ago when I was talking to a client on the phone while reading email. The client apparently could hear my tapping on the keyboard because she asked me, “Kevin, are you reading email?” Before I responded, I reminded myself of a Mark Twain quote, “When in doubt, tell the truth.” So I did and said that I was. Silence followed my remark. Then, she said, “Kevin, either decide to read email or talk with me. You can’t do both.” I chose to talk with her which was the right thing to do.
This was a painful lesson to give my undivided attention to a client, and to recognize that multitasking may serve as a detriment in paying attention to any one thing I’m doing. I began thinking that multitasking may not be a valued skill after all. I mean what’s wrong with giving one’s full attention to one task at a time? Wouldn’t my brain function at its optimum if I did that?
I invite you to read the August 30th column in The New York Times Sunday called “The Mediocre Multitasker” by Ruth Pennebaker, who is a contributing writer for The Texas Observer and blogs at geezersisters.com. Pennebaker writes about the results of research findings published in the August 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which shows that the most persistent multitaskers perform badly in a variety of tasks. “Multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy and just lousy at everything. They are not in control of information and were more likely getting confused.” The research was so convincing of the disadvantages of multitasking, that the researchers are planning a series of follow-up experiments.
If Shakespeare were alive today, he may pose this question: “To multitask, or not to multitask: that is the question.”