Can we really increase our productivity by multitasking?

It is an interesting concept that sparks passionate debate and raises questions about what our brains really can do.

Multitasking involves one person doing two or more tasks simultaneously that requires higher-level brain activity. Eating and watching television at the same time is not multitasking. Driving a vehicle and talking on a cellphone simultaneously is multitasking.

While multitasking might seem glamorous and intriguing, is it realistic?

“We are most effective when we focus our attention, even for a short period of time, on the most significant task,” claims Jamie Millard, executive partner of the Lexington Leadership firm. “I question the validity of juggling multiple tasks simultaneously.”

So why is the multitasking term used so frequently?

“I think people are trying to increase their self-worth,” says Jacob Belt, president of Sandler Training/Sales PHD, who has seen an increase in the use of the term during the 14 years that he has trained thousands of Rhode Island professionals. When people try to multitask, “they increase mistakes and become less productive.” Focusing on one task at time is the best approach, he suggests.

Karl Wadensten, president of a New England manufacturing company, agrees that attempts to multitask frequently lead to high error rates, incomplete work and a loss of focus.

Based on a belief that “we can see faster than we think,” Wadensten’s Vibco staff are trained to focus on one customer situation at a time, using multiple computer screens to display relevant data simultaneously. With three or more screens, for example, employees can see critical customer data, real time photos of equipment, and related email.

The process works. Vibco has become an industry leader in shipping commercial vibration equipment on the day an order is placed, focusing on one thing at a time.

Research Results

Recent research has given us valuable insight into multitasking.

Ground breaking research by Dr. Marcel Just and his Carnegie Mellon University team does conclusively prove that an individual’s driving ability is impaired when they try to talk on a cellphone and drive simultaneously. Magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to study participant brain activity to reach their conclusion.

The Just study gives us a glimpse at how the human brain is affected by attempts to complete multiple tasks simultaneously.

As a result of the study, some pundits claim that a vehicle operator engaged in a cellphone conversation is more dangerous than a drunk driver.  Fortunately, legislators have taken action to improve highway safety after seeing the results.

What Is Really Happening?

So what is really happening with interpreters for the deaf, classroom teachers and broadcast professionals ? They appear to be doing more than one thing at a time.

The overwhelming evidence is that our brains use higher level cognitive processing to focus on one task. Frequently it looks like a person is doing more than one thing at a time. In fact, like an accomplished juggler, they are only touching one ball at a time.

A new word has been created to explain what is happening — switch tasking.

Switch tasking occurs when we simultaneously move between two or more tasks. Often it is done so quickly, people believe that they are multitasking, according to author Dave Crenshaw. In his book, The Myth of Multitasking, he suggests that they are doing one thing at a time.

Dr. Jim Taylor, a partner and technology expert with the Trium Group (www.triumgroup.com) and author of multiple books, explains that multitasking requires different types of brain processing. Reading a book while listening to music might appear to be the completion of two things at once. It is really one higher level task (reading) and one repetitive task (listening to music).

He also claims that multitasking is a myth that “has been promulgated to make overly scheduled and stressed out people feel productive and efficient.”

Brain Rules author Dr. John J. Medina says: “To put it bluntly, research shows that the attentional spotlight in our brains can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.”

So, if we cannot multitask, why are some people able to work so fast?

Part of the reason that interpreters, teachers and broadcasters can quickly process so much information is because we all have unused brain capacity. Most of us only use 25-percent of our brain when listening. So unless the speaker is talking at 500 words per minute, we can handle it.

Many times people accomplish significant results (mothers with children, for example) because they have refined the way they get things done. Smooth operations are the result of focused attention to detail.

Discussions about multitasking will continue and extraordinary claims about multitasking prowess will continue to be made. While some will believe that they are great at multitasking, most of us will accept the premise that we are best doing one task at a time.