The Pitfalls of Multitasking

At 8 p.m., when many Americans are winding down, Pamela Johnston is still going -- and going, and going and going.

During the day, she is the president of PJ Inc., a public-relations firm.

In the evening, she works out with a trainer, cooks dinner, and checks e-mail.

The New Jersey mom and career woman relies on multitasking, though she realizes it's not always the right way to handle her busy life.

"I'll be on the phone and waiting for someone to pick up, and I will have done three to four things before they pick up. And I will have forgotten who I've called," Johnston said.

Experts say some people may find multitasking necessary, but it inherently creates problems.

"Multitasking hurts your performance," said James Johnston, a psychologist at the NASA Ames Research Center. "Sometimes you get away with it and sometimes you'll make mistakes and the consequences will hurt you."

Multitask Danger

It can be dangerous, too, particularly when one of the tasks being juggled is driving a car.

Recent studies show the scope of the problem.

Workers of 10 usually don't spend more than three minutes on any given task, and they're usually interrupted every two minutes.

Another study shows it takes 50 percent longer to complete two tasks at one time than if they were done separately.

It is possible to improve multitasking techniques.

Last summer, former schoolteacher Peter Freer demonstrated how to do this with a computer program.

With the help of a helmet outfitted with sensors, Freer showed how to keep focused on a screen through distractions.

According to Freer, it's all about practice -- the more the brain triumphs over distractions, the better it will get at successfully multitasking.

Still, it's almost impossible to handle everything every time. Chronic multitaskers may need to add one more "to-do" to their list: apologizing when they slip up and admitting that they need help.

"You confess immediately, and tell them you're doing several things. And you need their help," said psychologist Johnston.