The Myth of Multi-tasking

(Spoiler alert: this blog involves serious injury to my foot, bum and pride. You have been warned).

My cell phone alarm was ringing, and that meant it was time for my eye drops. I was over at my neighbours, sitting outside enjoying their company, and that annoying sound went off. I pushed myself out of the comfy lawn chair and ventured into the kitchen to find my phone…and noticed a text message from a friend. As I headed towards the front room where my eye drops were, I started reading the text.

As I turned into the front room, I placed my left foot first, and it landed…in thin air! In my attempt to read the text, I hadn’t looked up, and had turned into the entry to the basement! I tumbled down, smashing my foot to keep from falling too hard, and I could hear the wee bones of my toes snap. Then bam, I careened onto my right hip and crashed down on my thigh and bum.

When I landed at the bottom of the (carpeted) stairs, I was grateful I hadn’t hit my head, and angry that I could be so stupid as to try to do two things at once!!! (I debated putting a picture of the bruise in here, but concluded that is was just too disgusting to include! Suffice it to say it took 4 months for the skin to return to its normal colour. It was nasty!) Surely I must learn something from this.

The brain has tremendous flexibility and plasticity, and its ability for spatial processing is remarkable. But it can only do so much. Think about when you are totally engrossed in a novel..it is as if you don’t even know what is going on around you, even when someone is calling your name. Your brain’s focus is on the book, not your surroundings. According to Prof. Nilli Lavie of University College of London, the brain has a limited processing capacity and when it’s flooded with information, it shuts out any other stimuli that is not task-relevant. That includes things like knowing where you are going when you are reading a text!

Dr. Colin MacLeod explains that “we think we’re multi-taskers and really we’re not. Our brain allows is to switch attention fairly quickly. But we don’t always realize we’re switching. We think we’re doing two things at once, so we get fooled”.

I do a lot of multi-tasking when I work. However, focusing on a single task at hand, whether it is writing a report, planning my schedule or talking on the phone to a client, should be a priority.  Planning my schedule WHILE talking to a client WHILE trying to research something fools me into thinking I am successful at all three. I often find out later that I have double booked myself in my schedule, I can’t even remember what my client said, and I have to do the research all over again.

I’ve got a very clear business task for my afternoon activities. I’m going to focus on that by turning off the ringer to the phone, closing my computer and giving it all my attention. I will stay clear of stairs and text messages for the duration as well!

The non-multi-tasking desk!

The non-multi-tasking desk!

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