Is “multitasking” just a myth?

Illustration by iosphere. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
Illustration by iosphere. Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I don’t mean to brag, but I can walk and chew gum at the same time. Literally. I can do it over different kinds of terrain, with all kinds of gum.

And my guess is, so can you.

But can you chew your gum to the rhythm of the Star-Spangled Banner while trying to find the departure gate for the airline flight you’re about to miss? In a situation like that, your patriotic chewing would probably stop altogether. People could burst into flames next to you and you might not notice — unless they were helpfully pointing to your gate.

In this day of endless digital distraction, we’re becoming less and less tolerant of moments that aren’t filled with some form of stimulation. And we like to think that we’re good at “multitasking”: we can check email during a conversation, or watch a YouTube video while listening to a boring professor, all without missing a beat. The research, however, is clear: we’re not as good as we think, even if we’ve convinced ourselves otherwise.

Part of the illusion has to do with what we mean by “multitasking.” Walking and chewing gum are automatic behaviors that don’t require conscious effort, and thus hardly qualify to be called “tasks” in the first place. But our brains are not built to focus simultaneously on two things that both require attention.

Take the matter of driving while talking on a cell phone (or worse, texting). Researchers have clearly demonstrated that dividing our attention in this way is tantamount to driving drunk. And yet, most of us have probably done it, and may even continue to do so despite laws to the contrary. We’re tempted to justify our behavior: People keep talking about how dangerous it is. But I do it, and have never been in an accident. I’m perfectly capable of doing two things at once. Good thing we have that law, though — to protect us from those other people.

That’s wishful thinking — the result of common cognitive biases in which we essentially believe what we want to believe. A more sober train of thought would be something like this:

  • Driving safely includes paying attention to what’s going on around me;
  • Accidents are relatively rare compared to the amount of time I spend on the road;
  • How attentive I am is only one of many factors that contribute to an accident;
  • Not paying attention therefore increases the risk, but doesn’t necessarily mean that an accident will happen;
  • Thus, the fact that I haven’t had an accident while talking on the phone tells me nothing about how much of a risk I’m taking.

Again, the research is clear: when we drive with something distracting our attention, the time it takes to notice and respond to danger situations goes up, and with it the risk of an accident. The fact that no emergency occurred and your reaction wasn’t tested doesn’t mean you’re good at multitasking; it means you gambled and got lucky.

This isn’t just about driving. In a recent post, following a memorable phrase from Hart and Frejd, I suggested that we need to “be where our butt is” — to be present to the people and situations around us. To drive distracted is not only to put ourselves at risk, but the others around us. Less dramatically, to be focused on our cell phones at the dinner table might help us stay on top of what’s happening in our digital network, but it isolates us from the friends and family who are right there in the room with us.

What kind of a person do you want to be? Be thoughtful about how you use your digital devices, knowing that they take your attention away from your immediate surroundings. Sometimes, the “task” at hand is being in the room with someone who wants your company, and “multitasking” is neither the respectful nor the loving thing to do.