The Grand Seduction of Multitasking

Is multitasking the most-efficient way to work, or is that a myth?


August 14, 2007 -- Whether it's driving while talking on your cell phone, sending e-mails during a business meeting or listening to music while you're working, it seems multitasking has become a way of life. Employers, parents, even kids are trying to get more done in less time.

But, does multitasking really make you more efficient? And what happens to your brain when you're trying to complete two important tasks at once?

"Doing just one thing at a time seems like it's out of style," says Edward Hallowell, who wrote the book "Crazybusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap!"

"Technology may not be helping you as much as you think, and that is the grand seduction of multitasking," Hallowell says. "You think you are getting a lot done at once, but you in fact are not."

Hallowell has scientific support for his claim. Vanderbilt University neuroscientist Rene Marois asked students to do two tasks at once and examined their brains using an MRI. Turns out our brains aren't built for multitasking.

"Essentially it slows us down," says Marois. "We do one task and then after that we switch to the other."

It's like an information traffic jam in your head. And it can be life-threatening, especially if you're driving 60 miles an hour while talking on the phone.

"One second of inattention can kill. And studies have shown talking on a cell phone while driving impairs your driving more than having had two drinks," Hallowell says.

The University of Utah has used simulators to study the effects of talking or text messaging behind the wheel. They found that drivers who multitasked were more than five times as likely to get in an accident. It's so obvious that one insurer, Allstate, now offers bonuses to encourage drivers to just drive.

Multitasking doesn't just take its toll on the road. Research shows it has an even worse effect in the office.

Microsoft -- the company behind high-tech products aimed at helping you get more done in less time -- now worries about the repercussions of some of its high-tech products. Microsoft studied its own employees and found it takes workers interrupted by e-mail or instant messages around 15 minutes to get back into their work groove. Microsoft manager Eric Horvitz says that kind of "downtime" adds up.

"If this happens two to five times an hour, each time taking 10 to 15 minutes on average to get back to what you were doing, what time is left to get the stuff done?" Horvitz asks,.

A recent report by Basex Inc. found workers waste an average of two hours a day on e-mails and recovery time. And that costs American businesses $650 billion a year.

Hallowell says there are steps one can take to escape the counterproductive multitasking cycle:

1) Stop being on call 24/7. Check your e-mail -- at most -- once an hour.

2) Turn off the alerts on your computer that tell you there's a new e-mail.

3) If you absolutely have to listen to music while you're working or doing homework, listen to instrumentals. Lyrics are distracting.

Hallowell admits these habits could be hard to break but says the outcome will be worth it.

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