I used to tell people that “I’m a multitasking fool,” and in recent years, I’ve seen greater emphasis on “fool” – yes, I was good at balancing many tasks, I could keep a lot of balls in the air without dropping them. As I matured, I realized that depth has more value than breadth, and in recent years I’ve been trying to learn to focus and do a few things well.
Alina Tugend in The New York Times notes a multitasking trend since the 1990s, saying that “while multitasking may seem to be saving time, psychologists, neuroscientists and others are finding that it can put us under a great deal of stress and actually make us less efficient.” As a good case study who’s thought about it a lot, I felt real resonance with the quote from Edward Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!: “Multitasking is shifting focus from one task to another in rapid succession. It gives the illusion that we’re simultaneously tasking, but we’re really not. It’s like playing tennis with three balls.”
….despite what many of us think, you cannot simultaneously e-mail and talk on the phone. I think we’re all familiar with what Dr. Hallowell calls “e-mail voice,” when someone you’re talking to on the phone suddenly sounds, well, disengaged.
“You cannot divide your attention like that,” he said. “It’s a big illusion. You can shift back and forth.”
The article goes on to discuss overload, fragmentation, and the neural overhead of task-switching.
Dr. Hallowell has termed this effort to multitask “attention deficit trait.” Unlike attention deficit disorder, which he has studied for years and has a neurological basis, attention deficit trait “springs entirely from the environment,” he wrote in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.”
“As our minds fill with noise — feckless synaptic events signifying nothing — the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and gradually to anything,” he wrote. Desperately trying to keep up with a multitude of jobs, we “feel a constant low level of panic and guilt.”