Winter 2011

Stop the multitasking madness: Put down the iPod and your BlackBerry, and pay attention to the task at hand

I’ll never forget how great I thought it was when I first discovered multitasking on my computer. Suddenly it was possible to switch between tasks seamlessly; with multiple windows, tabs, and programs open simultaneously. I could write articles, check e-mail, do research, and build spreadsheets—barely pausing between activities. I felt as if I were doing everything at once. It seems like ancient history now, but being able to move quickly and smoothly from one activity to another on a PC was nothing short of a revelation. But then a funny thing happened: I noticed that the more things I could do with ease on my computer, the harder it was to focus on any one activity. My natural inclination to jump from one thing to another prematurely was now aided and abetted by technology—the very thing that was supposed to be helping  me. Then, after the PDA and cell phone became a part of my daily life, I found myself, like millions of others, faced with even more interruptions, and it became increasingly difficult to concentrate. The technological advances that once seemed so liberating had become oppressive. I came to realize that multitasking isn’t something to be proud of. In fact, it’s unethical, and good managers won’t do it themselves and will not require it of those they manage.
Here’s why multitasking is unethical.

When you multitask, you’re doing a lot of work, but you’re not doing most (or any) of it well. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that people who fired off e-mails while talking on the phone and watching YouTube videos did each activity less well than those who focused on one thing at a time. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell, author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! (Ballantine, 2006), puts it this way: “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.”

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