Why We Make Mistakes: The myth of multi-tasking

In this and a couple of preceding and subsequent posts, I’m excerpting the 13 reasons from:

Why We Make Mistakes, Joseph T. Hallinanm, Broadway Books 2009

Mukti-tasking woman

Today, we add reason #5 to the list: the myth of multi-tasking…


* * * * * *

The errors we make can be explained through 13 lessons:

1. We look but don’t always see.

2. We all search for meaning.

3. We connect the dots.

4. We wear rose-colored glasses.

* * * * *

5. We can walk and chew gum — but not much else.

Whether we’re on foot or behind the wheel, our attention is continually being divided by the tasks we try to juggle, such as listening to iPods, talking on cell phones, and tapping away on BlackBerrys.

Most of us believe our brains can work in the same way that computers multitask. Although multi-tasking has become a hallmark of the modern workplace, it is also one of the great myths of the modern age. We may think we are focusing on several activities at once, but our attention is actually jumping back and forth between tasks.

Not even a computer, by the way, can multitask; it actually switches back and forth between several tasks several times per second, thus presenting the illusion that all of the tasks are being performed at once.

Our minds provide us with the same illusion.

the gains we think we make by multitasking are often illusory. This is because the brain slows down when it has to juggle tasks.

Switching from task to task also creates other problems. One such problem is that we forget what we are doing — or planned to do. In some cases, the forgetting rate can be as high as 40 percent.

Another cost to multitasking is downtime. When we’re working on one thing and are interrupted, it takes us a while to refocus on what we were originally working on.

Workplace studies have found that it takes up to 15 minutes for us to regain a deep state of concentration after a distraction, such as a phone call.

Divided attention can also produce a dangerous condition known as inattentional blindness. In this condition, it is possible for an individual to look directly at something and still not see it.

One example, driver distraction, is now considered a much more frequent cause of auto accidents than safety officials once believed. When switching from task to task, drivers need downtime to recover.

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Next up: Wrong frame of mind …

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