Since so many of us pride ourselves on how much work we can accomplish, myself certainly included, I think it time to make the case for the virtue of single tasking as opposed to the limits of multitasking. Actually I do not have to make the case since multiple research-based cases have been made that multitasking is not all it has been cracked up to be.
Of course the negative consequences of multitasking vary wildly in term of the damage done. The most tragic consequence is chillingly and graphically presented in public service announcements urging people to refrain from texting and driving. The case could not be more compelling, but this phenomenon has not been eliminated in spite of the dire warnings.
On the other end of the spectrum are those moments of leisure where the stakes are not very high: reading a newspaper while glancing at the television perhaps with headphones sending music in our ears. Perhaps in that instance we are not really multitasking; we’re escaping from all tasks through sensory overload.
My concern is about those middle-range activities, important but not necessarily life-changing in and of themselves. I include items like reading a book, writing a letter, paying bills, having a conversation, doing homework, watching a performance, or writing a blog.
One can only conclude that we all think we are better at multitasking than the research evidence indicates. If doing one thing is good, two is better, and on and on. But we are definitely in the land of diminishing returns. In fact we are not saving time, the quality of our task performance is diminished, and mistakes are more plentiful. Nonetheless we resist these realities, perhaps because the menu of options for each of us grows daily. There is no little irony that the term multitasking was first used to describe computer capabilities. Alas, we are people, not computers. (That’s good news, by the way.)
For me a great aid to single tasking is list making. Such lists have proven invaluable to me over the years as I have worked to sharpen my focus. Lists need to be limited. Otherwise we are sorely tempted to multitask since that is the only way to address (inadequately) a list that is too long. Lists also need to be prioritized: first things first. If on a given day, I have not accomplished one or more tasks on the list, it is most likely for one of two reasons. My list is too long, or I have deferred a challenging task that ought to have been first on my to-do list- not last.
Until next time…