So, it should come as no surprise to me that I have started hearing rumors of a failed philosophy that has ruled a good part of my life, albeit ineffectively. Namely, multitasking doesn’t work.
One molecular biologist even suggests that multitasking actually impairs ones cognitive ability similarly to drunkenness, particularly when the multitasking happens behind the wheel of a vehicle (which is the impetus behind many bans on texting and driving).
That same scientist, John Medina, quoted in an online article by Mark McGuinness called, “Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work,” goes even further in his analysis to claim that multitasking doesn’t even really exist. As McGuinnes summarizes, “So there’s no such thing as multitasking. Just task switching – or at best, background tasking, in which one activity consumes our attention while we’re mindlessly performing another.”
These articles shouldn’t surprise me because the truth of them is evident in my life. I spend most days “simultaneously” listening to the radio, checking email, answering phone calls and drop-by questions from co-workers, while also moving in and out of various software programs running queries, researching discrepancies, and tabulating results. It all appears very busy and productive, but at the end of the day, I often am not even really sure what I accomplished. And, humorously, when I have a really tough problem I’m working on, I turn the radio off so I can “concentrate.”
If my work suffers from too much multitasking, though, how much more my relationships? Our lives are wired for accomplishing stuff. With all of our appliances, electronics, mobile devices, and modes of transportation, we can be getting so much done that we never interact with an actual person. And even when I am with another person, it’s all too easy to try to stay productive by answering texts and email, making online orders, or updating my calendar.
I’ve even found myself multitasking through my time with Jesus lately, with dinner on the table, my Bible on my lap, my iPhone in hand, and the television on in the background.
The opposite of multitasking is not just “single”tasking. It’s not about “doing” anything at all, but about putting all my concentration on one thing. A lot of times, that’s another person. Often, it is a task that requires all of me. Mostly, it’s about being present in the moment. And being present is not just something I do between other tasks; if I can’t stay put for more than five minutes, than I’m still task-switching.
I’m not exactly sure that I can completely eliminate task switching in my life, especially in a job that requires me to perform many different tasks each day. But I can work on being present in other areas of my life.
You might also enjoy this article over on High Calling about how to redeem all of our work distractions: “Hearing Christ at Work.”