The act of juggling two or more tasks at the same time obtained its own name a few years ago–multi-tasking. We became proud of how many tasks we could do at one time. Multi-tasking was greatly encouraged by business managers in their aim to squeeze the most productivity from employees.
The problem with multi-tasking is that it really doesn’t improve productivity and efficiency in the long run. The more tasks we attempt to do at one time, the less likely we are to be as effective as possible. Multi-tasking can even be dangerous.
I thought about multi-tasking while writing yesterday’s bluejayblog post “Justifying Evil”. In it I used the example of distracted driving. We often forget that driving a motor vehicle is a deadly serious act. If we’re chowing down on breakfast while tooling down the highway, we’re as dangerous as a drunken driver.
If we take our eyes off the road for only a couple of seconds, it takes at least another couple of seconds for our minds to reorient attention back to the highway. So, to look at the sandwich in your hand for two seconds means it takes at least another two seconds to refocus on driving.
Let’s assume you are driving a prudent speed of 60 miles an hour. This means your vehicle is zipping down the road at 88 feet per second. So, while you are checking out your sandwich or fiddling around with your drink cup, your vehicle has covered 176 feet, conservatively speaking. After your attention has fully focused back on the road, you’ve gone 352 feet, 0.066 of a mile. If you’re going a bit faster by observing the maximum posted speed limit, you’ll be covering even more distance in a second or two.
Problems can crop up quickly on a crowded freeway when everyone is going 88 feet per second. If somebody is snacking, drinking coffee, or engaged in conversation with a passenger or on a phone while driving, there is potential for serious danger. If the driver is closer than 88 feet from the car ahead, one second is going to be insufficient to avoid a collision if quick braking is required.
Multi-tasking while driving isn’t alone in being problematic. A study conducted by Ohio State University discovered that reading a book and watching television at the same time resulted in abysmal cognitive performance on both tasks. A Michigan State experiment with 300 students found that accuracy on a computer test declined greatly when pop-up interruptions occured. With an average interruption time of 2.8 second, the test takers made double the amount of errors of students taking a test without pop-ups. If the interruptions were 4.4 seconds the same students’ errors increased four-fold.
Returning to our vehicle example, what about talking on a mobile phone? Even if the phone is built into the car and initiating and completing a call is automated for hands-free conversation, attention levels still decreased drastically. Driver reaction times lengthened to the same level as driving while intoxicated. While the drivers were focused on the content of their conversations, they missed over half of what they needed to see, like pedestrians, road signs, and vehicles making sudden maneuvers. Do I even have to mention texting and driving?
Another way of interpreting these findings is that multi-tasking can be counter-productive. It might be argued that actual, true multi-tasking is something our brains cannot actually do. We actually focus on one thing at a time, even if the focus is for a moment or two. Make a point of noticing this yourself, the next time you must multi-task.
For instance, if you are replying to an email at the same time you are visiting someone on the phone, your focus will go back and forth between the two tasks. The quality of the email and the visit will be less than if full attention is paid to either one if each is single-tasked. This is a time-tested truth. A conversation with a friend is better when our attention is fully focused on what she is saying, rather than thinking about what we have to say and faking our full attention.
At work, when we concentrate only on our main task, the result is a more satisfactory result with less backtracking to correct errors. Increasing numbers of business consultants are now downplaying multi-tasking and promoting single-tasking. Some are even calling single-tasking the new multi-tasking.
Actually, single-tasking is a very old concept. It’s what people have been doing all along. It’s what we do best. Single-tasking is mindfulness at work.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes legendary coach Vince Lombardi. “The price of success is hard work, dedication to the job at hand, and the determination that whether we win or lose, we have applied the best of ourselves to the task at hand.”