The Deeply Ingrained Myth Of Multi-Tasking And Why It Hurts Your Productivity

multi-taskingResearchers have again proven that multi-tasking is a myth. For the majority of us, we really aren’t capable of performing two separate tasks at once and still doing them both well. If most of us are trying to check email and carry on a phone conversation, we’ll either miss part of the dialogue or have a billion typos. A majority of us can’t do two things simultaneously without messing one of them up. And by a “majority,” I mean 98% percent of us. Which just makes me think, “I must be part of the 2%.”

Listen, I can’t help it. The myth of multi-tasking is a deeply ingrained part of my psyche.

Scientists have recently discovered that for these true multi-taskers, the 2 percenters, their brain is actually wired differently. David Strayer of the University of Utah said, ‘These brain regions that differentiate supertaskers from the rest of the population are the same regions that are most different between humans and nonhuman primates. Certain parts of the frontal cortex are recruited in an interesting way.”

For most of us, our brain “bottlenecks” creating a logjam of neural messages. Our mind has to slow to try to process multiple things at once. This explains why its so difficult.

I’m writing these words and yet I’m still thinking back to all the reasons why I’m positive that I can process two things at once. I can remember studying for a test with headphones on during a school trip to Utah. My business teacher was watching me curiously. I was singing along with the music and reading my text book at the same time. Finally he asked, “Are you mouthing the words to the song or the book?” It was the song, I told him. So he asked me to explain what I had been reading about. If I remember right, I spoke for five minutes or so about supply-side economics. Look at me, I’m a multi-tasker!

The truth is that I already knew about supply-side economics. I was just looking back through information that I was already familiar with. I didn’t need to actual read the pages to discuss the content.

Every business person is used to juggling multiple projects or deadlines. We’re used to thinking about what we’re going to cook for dinner while we’re sitting through an afternoon meeting. However, these things aren’t really multi-tasking. We might do a lot of things in quick succession. We might stop in the middle of a project, do something else, and then return to it. But the fact of the matter is that we aren’t really capable of doing two things at once.

Why does it matter how we phrase it? Well, the myth of multi-tasking leads women to believe that we should constantly be juggling multiple jobs. It convinces us to address different problems at the same time, instead of focusing our efforts on a single issue and then moving on. It’s hurting our productivity simply by pretending to be a possibility.

I’m definitely guilty of this line of thinking. I would love to pretend that I’m part of that 2%. But the truth is that we all would be better served by concentrating our efforts and doing our jobs well. As the scientists say, “Our research offers neurological evidence that the brain cannot effectively do two things at once.”

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