Of course, all of us can do more than one thing at a time. We can simultaneously chew gum and walk, for example. At the same time, we're undoubtedly breathing and quite likely talking to someone next to us or on our cell phone. And we are subconsciously looking for dangers—perhaps checking the sidewalk ahead of us for debris, or scouting for traffic, or surveying the other animals (for most of us, that means the other humans) around us. So we are doing at least five things at once!
But multi-tasking implies two or more jobs that require conscious focus. In our example above, we are only focused on our conversation with another person. Walking, chewing, and breathing are pretty automatic. As I mentioned already, the constant survey of an outdoor environment, looking for dangers, is also usually done at a subconscious level.
When we use the word multi-tasking, we mean something like talking on the phone and typing a report at the same time. Or doing geometry homework while watching TV. Or listening to a lecture while texting. Scientists tell us that, even if we feel as if we are getting more done and saving time, we can REALLY only do one thing at a time...and trying to multi-task results in wasted time from switching our focus back and forth from one activity to the other. It also results in far more errors.
If multi-tasking doesn't work, why do so many people think that it does?
We got the idea of multi-tasking—and the word—from computer science. Single core computers, like people, can only do one thing at a time. But computers seem to do multiple things at once because they are able to switch very rapidly between multiple tasks. (Computers can toggle between tasks many times a second.) Unlike humans, computers can switch from task to task without requiring time to pause-and-refocus, and they can do so without making errors.
I suspect that people tell themselves that they are good at multi-tasking because they want to do a fun activity instead of a boring one...so they try to do both at once.
Some studies show that young people, in particular, often try to have more than one “input” at a time. When they are watching TV, reading, or listening to music, they are ALSO often surfing the web, texting, checking status updates, or playing a game. Experts call this “continuous partial attention,” and they point out that, in an effort not to miss stuff, teens are only able to to pay a shallow amount of attention to anything.
One could argue that they miss most everything!
Celebrate Single Tasking Day by really focusing on one thing at a time. Stop everything else and really listen to—and maybe sing along to—that song you claim to love. Relish a good book in a place far from phones or computers or video games. Really focus on that television show you say is your favorite—but that you hardly pay attention to, normally.
If there is something you have to do—something boring or hard, perhaps—dive in and do it with your full, concentrated effort. It will probably be done and out of your hair much quicker than it would be if you multi-tasked while doing it. And you are much more likely to do a good job, and not have to redo it!
And you can then do the fun thing you'd really wanted to do. Without guilt.
Whatever you are doing, really do it. Just that one thing.
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