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Multi-tasking Creates Madness

When Multitasking Creates Madness

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by Margaret Fiero

Are you a multitasking maniac? Do you think that you can eat a burger, call your mom, text the dog sitter and apply mascara while driving with your knee? Doing more with less time is a modern obsession. In fact, we seem to believe that juggling multiple tasks at once is the pinnacle of human evolution. After all, “multitasker” is as ubiquitous a term on resumes as is “self-starter” these days (I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was applying to fill the robot maid’s position on The Jetsons…)

In a recent episode of their KUT radio series “Two Guys on Your Head,” UT professors Dr. Art Markman and Dr. Bob Duke discuss the myth of multitasking and its resulting negative fallout. First off, the good doctors define multitasking as doing any two things at once, even if we don’t necessarily think of them as “tasks”: checking Facebook while checking your bank account; watching TV while answering email – anything is multitasking if it’s more than one thing done at a time. So what’s the problem, you ask? Well, put simply, our brains were only designed to focus on one thing at one time. Markman and Duke state that as much as 50 years ago this phenomenon was discovered in research studies. Since then, we have seen the disastrous results of car accidents caused by phone use while driving, and other phenomena that reinforce those studies’ conclusions.

If true multitasking is an illusion, why do we still text and drive? Why do we still try to appeal to potential employers by promoting our supposed ability to juggle multiple tasks? Markman and Duke state that despite the evidence to the contrary, we remain “overly confident” about our ability to pull off multiple tasks at once. The reason this occurs is because the same areas of our brain that monitor our performance are also the same areas that are “soaked up” by multitasking. In other words, when we try to multitask, we’re too busy doing all those things at once to realize we aren’t doing any of them very well. Another problem is “inconsistent negative feedback” from multitasking. I take this to mean that because we normally don’t get into car accidents while we text and drive at the same time, we think we never will, despite all the horrific stories of emoticons resulting in 10 car pileups. All of this causes a “blissful ignorance” of our inability to multitask.

Markman and Duke also discussed the reason multitasking is such a problem of our era. It’s not that we’re worse humans than previous generations, it’s just that folks living in earlier times had less opportunity to multitask than we do now. No one lugged their typewriter around with them (no one who wasn’t a beat poet, at least), and you couldn’t take your phone in the car. The lure of technology is strong, say the professors, and I believe most would agree. Unsurprisingly, their advice is very low-tech: “Turn your phone off”; “Don’t keep your email up at work.” They maintain that, because so many of our actions are “guided by non-conscious responses to the environment,” it makes sense to change one’s environment and remove the tempting tech, rather than relying on willpower alone.

As a therapist, I see this growing as an issue with clients in our practice. I see more people coming in for anxiety, depression, and wondering if they have ADHD due to their inability to focus. There is a clear pattern that it affects their work quality and their marriages. In some relationships, people are finding that their devices are taking away from our quality time with our partners. There are resources out there to help you single focus but a therapist can help as well. If you need counseling resources in Austin, contact us to make a counseling appointment and we will help you to find a counselor that is the right fit. Looking for more lifestyle resources? Check out How to Procrastinate Efficiently and Ennui-kend: The Weekend Blues.

Two Guys On Your Head:


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