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May 05, 2006

The myth of multitasking

Associations Now covers the multitasking concept in their most recent issue: Why multitasking backfires. In preparing for a presentation, reading the Prepared Mind of a Leader, observing my own work habits, and those of others, I've come to understand recently that multitasking truly is a myth. You can only give your full attention and concentration to one thing at a time. Each mental shift from task to task requires the mind to reset at a cost of a few seconds to a few minutes. Did you know the human mind needs eight minutes to achieve a state of full concentraion?

The article identifies these additional pitfalls of multitasking.

Multitasking seemingly enables one to achieve time-saving benefits, but most people suffer in ways they don't even understand. Rather than increasing their productivity, multitasking diminishes it. They make more mistakes. They
leave too many things undone. Their quality of work is not what it could be, and the list of potential known hazards of multitasking is beginning to grow:
* Loss of concentration;
* Gaps in short-term memory;
* Problems communicating with coworkers;
* Lapses in attentiveness;
* Stress symptoms (e.g., shortness of breath)

Don't fool yourself -- human concentration is a zero-sum equation. When you multitask, you simply reduce the amount of attention you give to one thing or the other.

The article in Associations Now doesn't address this, but there are some multitasking things you can do to avoid these side effects, and actually be more productive. The key is to do two totally dissimilar things at the same time. For example, brushing your teeth and preparing for a presentation at the same time. Or stuffing badges and brainstorming a new article or education course. Or drive your car and imagine how you'll address that sticky issue with a co-worker.

I've disabled my Outlook and Bloglines notifiers that announce when a new email or RSS feed arrives, and my BlackBerry doesn't vibe unless a phone call comes in. I've found that these are two simple ways to reduce interruptions, stay focused, and reduce the urge to multitask.

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