Multi-tasking is a Myth

John Medina, author of Brain Rules, explains that multi-tasking is a truly a myth. The way that the brain works doesn’t allow for it. Although the brain can do multiple things simultaneously (You can walk and talk at the same time or breathe and read a book.) the conscious brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Our tendency to listen to music, answer the phone, and send e-mails or text messages, while trying to write a paper or finish a project at work is not productive. A focused concentrated effort can go a long way to help manage our time.

Here’s how Medina explains: “Research shows that we can’t multi-task. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich input simultaneously.” Without going into the neurological details, Medina goes on to explain that there are 4 steps that the brain must go through each time attention is shifted from one task to another – four more when attention is shifted back. The process takes several tenths of a second each time. It doesn’t sound like much time but it adds up quickly and maybe more importantly, the distraction hinders the more complicated processes of the task at hand. If you’ve ever found yourself losing track of previous progress, or heard yourself say things like, “Now where was I?” then you have experienced this problem. Medina says, “Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task. Not only that. He or she makes up to 50% more errors.”

This means that if we would put our cell phones on silent (or God forbid – turn them off), close the layers of applications running on the computer, shut the door, and give our tasks a focused effort, we could probably accomplish much more during the day and have fewer errors in our work. Our minds are just too crowded by all the messages competing for our attention. The immediate gratification of our “information addiction” is hurting us. Maybe we should just choose to ignore a few things. All of this thinking reminds me of another post which was inspired by the phrase, Selective Ignorance.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a student, I was a procrastinator. (OK – I probably still am.) But when the deadline was approaching, I would stop everything else and focus on the project. Although I had weeks to work on it, I was able to get it done in a couple of hours with focused effort. Based on my own experiences, I believe know Medina is right.

What would my life look like if I fasted from multi-tasking? Would my kids get more of me? Would I be more present in the moment? Would I get more done? Which messages/projects would I choose to ignore? Would I have to ignore them at all if I had more time ’cause I was getting more things done?

Selective Ignorance

Does it really matter which Hollywood couple is getting divorced this week? Or who had a fight with the paparazzi? (If your esteem hinges on the “Big Brother” conversations you have with people, then you’ve got more serious issues.) Does it matter which YouTube video is getting the most hits today? Do you really need to know about the crisis that awaits you at work when you’re at home with your family? Do you really need to check your e-mail 3-4 times a day?

Although I don’t buy into everything in the book, the term “Selective Ignorance” caught my attention as I listened to a free audiobook download by Timothy Ferriss. He used this phrase as he discussed ways to simplify life and become more focused on the things that really matter. “Selective Ignorance.” – I love it!! I feel like he’s right. With the ease of the internet and the rise of gossip TV, we’ve become information addicts.

Check out these stats about e-mail from Timothy Ferriss’ website: (Notice that these are from 2006 – I’m sure the numbers have increased.)

  • 66% of people read email seven days a week and expect to receive a response the same day [eRoi Email Addiction Survey, Oct. 17, 2006].
  • 61% continue to check email while on vacation [eRoi Email Addiction Survey, Oct. 17, 2006].
  • 56% have anxiety if they can’t access email [eRoi Email Addiction Survey, Oct. 17, 2006].
  • “Crackberry” was the official winner of the 2006 Word-of-the-Year as selected by the editorial staff of Webster’s New World College Dictionary. Blackberry addiction has been labeled “similar to drugs” in a study performed by Rutgers University; millions of users are now able unable to go more than five minutes without checking e-mail.
  • In 2005, a psychiatrist at King’s College in London administered IQ tests to three groups: the first did nothing but perform the IQ test, the second was distracted by e-mail and ringing phones, and the third was stoned on marijuana. Not surprisingly, the first group did better than the other two by an average of 10 points. The e-mailers, on the other hands, did worse than the stoners by an average of 6 points [“Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” New York Magazine, Dec. 4, 2006].

All this is to say: I think we’ve got a full-blown addiction on our hands. We are addicted to being connected – addicted to information. We want to have it at our fingertips simply so we can feel like we know what’s going on in the world. I confess. I’ve fallen asleep on the couch in front of the TV on more than one occasion. By staying up for some pointless show, I knew I could be involved in the weekly conversations that I knew my so-called friends would engage in. Did I care about the show? Not so much. I was only doing it so I could be involved with my friends. Ultimately, it’s selfish. It’s about being esteemed by friends. It’s another form of “keeping up with the Jones.” But what if “keeping up with the Jones” keeps us from the real adventure that we could be having?

What if you didn’t hear about Michael Jackson’s death until a day later. Would your life suffer? What would happen if your co-workers couldn’t get in touch with you after work hours? Would you be fired?

What if we thought about these things the opposite way? What is already suffering because your coworkers are able to get in touch with you after work? What is the emotional toll on a man who feels like he has to check his e-mail 3 times a day? How much more could be accomplished if we didn’t spend so much time with e-mail spam or unmerited concerns of other coworkers?

Here’s my recommendation: Go on a media fast for a week. Try it. Choose to be “Selectively Ignorant.” Decide not to watch that show. Decide not to check e-mail or answer that phone call when you’re away from work. My bet is that you’ll become more focused. You’ll live in the moment more and truly “be with” people more. You’ll explore some new hobbies. You’ll rediscover some old passions that you had before. You’ll have a little more time to do the things you’ve always wanted to do. You’ll probably also discover that those things you thought you needed to know really aren’t all that important. (And by the way, when you start living life this way, it’s the Jones’ that feel like they’ve gotta keep up with you.) Let’s face it. Sometimes it’s true. “Ignorance is bliss.”

PS – I realize the hypocritical message I’m sending by encouraging you to go on a media fast in a blog post, but I thought this might be the only way someone would read such an article.