The other day I came across Judith Martin’s Miss Manners column in which she was answering a reader’s question about proper etiquette when you realize as someone takes your phone call that you are on speakerphone. As Martin covered various aspects of the dos and don’ts, she subtly and humorously let fly a disdain for supposed multitasking, especially given multitasking’s rich mythology (The Kansas City Star, April 29, 2015, p. D8):
“If you feel that someone on the speakerphone is apt to be ‘multitasking’—a modern word coined to replace the phrase ‘not paying attention’—you are most likely right.”
You don’t have to research very long before you learn that true multitasking is a myth. Even in the best of circumstances, all you are doing is rapidly shifting your attention off one task and on to another task. You are never truly fully handling more than one task at a time. The brain can only intensely focus on one item at a time. Furthermore, each time you do switch tasks, your brain incurs “startup” costs that slow down your overall progress.
I laughed recently when I saw a TV program in which a big-corporation CEO who claimed that he could multitask extremely well was put to the test. He tried to navigate a driving track with various obstacles while simultaneously engaged in a cell phone conversation. Let’s just say that it was a very bad day for the orange cones and a very embarrassing day for the CEO.
Granted, there are times (usually always!) when you have to manage (now there’s a much better term!) multiple tasks and priorities. We all understand that. Certainly, you do the best you can as you juggle those multiple priorities.
Now, I may not be the fastest chip on the motherboard, but I am at least willing to admit that I cannot truly multitask. Once I have done that, then I can give myself permission to focus on one task at a time. And that’s when a funny thing happens: I usually get them all done.