I “multitask” all the time. But every time I’m on a conference call and I have to say “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear that,” I know I can’t really multitask.
Nobody can really multitask. When you try to do more than one thing at once, you are actually switching between the tasks continuously. You lose a lot of time context switching. If the tasks are ones that are familiar to you, like talking on the phone and running after a naked 3 year old with clothes in your hand, it might feel like multitasking, but really your brain is furiously keeping track of both tasks (the conversation with your friend and the route your 3 year old is taking) and switching back and forth between them.
When the tasks are harder, you actually are slower (or poorer) at both of them together than if you did them separately. When I answer an email during a conference call, the email takes me longer and my conference call performance suffers and so the whole meeting probably takes longer.
You know the feeling of being “in the zone”, deep in a task and everything is going well, and someone interrupts you. When you go back to the task, it takes a while to get back to where you were. When you are multitasking you are doing this at a smaller level every few seconds.
Keeping a new resolution in mind (like dieting or exercising or a new way of managing tasks) can also count as multitasking. Your performance at your every day tasks can suffer as your brain switches between your commitment to your resolution (don’t eat that cookie!) and your task (pay attention to the meeting.)
So as you pick New Year’s Resolutions, you might want to think about sticking to one to minimize your multitasking and maximize your success. (And you might want to give a break to your distracted coworker – they are probably just focusing on not eating the cookie!)
Credit for this idea goes to Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School
as I’m sure I read it there last night but I can’t find the passage that talks about it. I’ve skimmed the whole book several times and used Amazon’s Search Inside to try to find the passage with no luck.