Thursday, October 18, 2007

Multitasking Makes You Stoopid

Multitasking, once ballyhooed as a staple of the modern digital executive, turns out to be a scourge.  And Walter Kirn’s recent excellent article assures us that not only is multitasking ineffective, but its end is near. And that’s good, because if you read the entire article, you’ll find that Kirn almost kills himself driving off the road while checking for messages from his girlfriend.

Here are 3 quick take-aways:
1. Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energizes regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

Even worse, certain studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy.

2. The next generation, presumably, is the hardest-hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (“I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” says one 17-year-old.)

3. This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. (Fact, and one more reason the bubble will pop: A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.) 
"To do two things at once is to do neither."  That's from Publilius Syrus, Roman slave--first century B.C.  It's high time we paid attention.