Jeff Davidson's book, Simpler Living, was Amazon Kindle #1 in its category, first quarter, 2012. Jeff is featured in the NY Times, Forbes, Chicago Tribune, Businessweek, Fortune, Organized Executive, and Success.

Doomed to Multi-Task?

The term multi-tasking evolved from the computer industry, the early mainframe computers designed with parallel processes is perhaps the prime example of automated multi-tasking. In an era of committed multi-taskers, concentration and focus are underrated. A magnifying glass held up at the correct angle to the sun will quicky burn a hole through a piece of paper. At the same time, no matter how much sun shines through your office window onto your desk, none of those long and tedious memos are going to catch on fire. The lack of combustibility has nothing to do with the way the manufacturer engineered this flat piece of glass.

Multi-tasking is occasionally helpful and seemingly satisfying but, along with the shower of information and communication overload, represents a paradoxical impediment to getting things done.

Faster and Less Attentive


In many respects, computers and mobile devices has accelerated our inattentiveness. Personal computers achieved critical mass in 1981 with the introduction of the Apple Computer designed as an alternative to the IBM PC. The affordable technology enabled common folk to engage in sequential kinds of activities and elevated our propensity to become task-switchers. Then, for a host of reasons, and some so bizarre that they defy description, over the next 30 years we began to emulate our computers. We multi-tasked while they multi-tasked.

Today, with the typical office professional working in an interruption-based environment, and sending or receiving more than 200 messages a day, counting all forms of communication, and all of them coming and going at shorter intervals, a generation of career professionals are being driven virtually to distraction. A number of the messages are fleeting, the meaning often unclear, and the result a listless and confused workforce.

Against the back drop of information and communication overload, ever-advancing technology, and more choices than anyone needs or even wants, seemingly, an entire workforce generation has been taught to multi-task as if this is the way it has always been, needs to be, and always will be.

Continuous Partial Attention


Multitasking has become a norm, giving rise to “continuous partial attention,” where nothing gets your true and undivided focus, and everything is homogenized to the point of carrying nearly equal weight.

We offer our attention here, there, and then somewhere else. Like a one-man band, we get our strokes from strumming the guitar, tapping our foot, and blowing on the harmonica. We equate accomplishment with flapping our wings, stirring up a lot of commotion, and making a lot of noise. We can barely tolerate stillness. For many, silence doesn’t appear to be golden, it seems more like a dark space, lacking productivity, that can yield nothing useful. Undivided attention is a term that has fallen out of popular use.

Generally, we feel guilty if we don’t multi-task! We contemplate our increasing workloads and responsibilities and how they are subject to continual shifts, and justify multi-tasking as a valid response to a world of flux.

Despite the temptation to do otherwise, focusing on the task at hand is vital to getting things done. Whether there’s a handful of tasks confronting you, or ideally only one, give all your time, attention, energy, focus, concentration, effort, and all that good stuff to the task at hand, and then turn to what’s next.

Multi-tasking: Misunderstood, Over-employed, and Undesired


It’s likely that people have always sought to handle many things simultaneously, stretching as far back as cave dwellers. Their multi-tasking effort probably seemed crude by comparison. Someday, somewhere, someone may discover that we are hardwired to continuously attempt to economize our use of time.

Our age old “flight or fight” response to perceived stressors in the environment works well, at intermittent times. The small jolts of concentrated energy and vigilance helps us to safeguard ourselves, our loved ones, and our possessions. As a species however, we are not wired to effectively handle continuous streams of two major stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — on a daily basis.

Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., director of the neuroendocrinology lab at Rockefeller University, observes that while we can apparently weather stresses and rapid hormonal changes in the short term, about 3 to 15 days, soon thereafter chronic stress begins to ensue. The result is a weakened immune system, aggression, anxiety and a decrease in brain functioning which results in burnout. Dangerously high levels of cortisol can result in poor sleep patterns and insulin resistance which can open the door to bad eating habits and weight gain.

Focus and concentration will be your keys for getting things done. Multi-tasking, as it is popularly understood and practiced, just is not your answer. It is expensive in terms of the level of stress induced and the rise in errors and, hence, can actually hamper productivity.

Stress, More Mental Effort


You don’t have to be a physician to observe the entrenched levels of workplace stress, but physicians themselves are noticing it with alarming regularity. Few patients ever remark that their stress levels are low, while most confess that they’re stressed to the max. As more interruptions invade ones workspace, and as the unfortunate habit of multi-tasking takes hold in the workforce, stress levels are rising.

Here’s the unwanted news. Next week, next month, and next year, you’ll be asked to do even more without necessarily being given any greater resources. If you work in government or a nonprofit organization, you may be asked to do more with less. If your budget or your staff has been reduced, or eliminated, you may be asked to do more with nothing!

Endeavors such as the above, where you are attempting to juggle numerous tasks at once, might be temporarily, psychologically satisfying. It is not desirable, however, from a psychological or physiological standpoint.

Marcel Just, Ph.D., co-director of Carnegie-Melon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, conducted a study in which he asked participants to listen to sentences while comparing two rotating objects. These tasks draw on different areas of the brain, yet participants’ ability to engage in visual processing, comparing the two rotating objects, dropped by 29%.

Participants’ capabilities for auditory processing — listening to the sentence — dropped by 53% when engaged in this mild multi-tasking test. Dr. Just says that while we certainly can do more than one thing at a time “we are kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without cost.”

Also, research conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health confirms that when the brain has to juggle several tasks at once or in rapid succession, it has to overcome “inhibitions” that it put in place to cease doing the task to begin with. It’s as if the brain is taking its foot off the break.

Evidence supports that multi-tasking adds up to a more stressful workday and life. It dampens our experience of pleasure. It hounds us long after closing time and even renders the benefits of leisure as less effective. Multi-tasking is simply not worth the cost.


Jeff Davidson is "The Work-Life Balance Expert®," is a preeminent time management authority, has written 65 mainstream books, and is an electrifying professional speaker, making 886 presentations to clients such as Lockheed Martin, Eckerd, Kaiser Permanente, IBM, American Express, Lufthansa, Swissotel, Re/Max, USAA, Worthington Steel, and the World Bank. Jeff is Executive Director of the Breathing Space Institute and the author of books such as:
  • Simpler Living (Skyhorse Publishing)
  • Dial It Down--Live it Up (Sourcebooks)
  • The 60 Second Innovator (Adams Media)
  • Breathing Space (CreateSpace)
  • Accomplishing Your Goals (Smart Guide Publications)
Jeff is the premier thought leader on work-life balance issues and has been widely quoted in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, USA Today, Businessweek, Forbes, and Fortune. Cited by Sharing Ideas Magazine as a "Consummate Speaker," Jeff believes that career professionals today in all industries have a responsibility to achieve their own sense of work-life balance, and he supports that quest through his website www.BreathingSpace.com.

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