Contrary to popular belief, it is physically impossible to do two things at once.
In fact, the modern idea of multitasking is a complete and utter fallacy. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. No one can do it.
Even computers can’t do it. Here’s why.
The idea of “multitasking” first appeared in the 1960’s and was used (believe it or not) to describe computers, not people. At that time, computers were becoming so fast at processing massive amounts of information, that we needed a way to describe this phenomenon. Originally, multitasking was the term used to describe the fact that multiple tasks were being performed alternately but by sharing one resource (the computer). The term eventually evolved into our current description of multiple tasks being performed simultaneously by using one resource (a person).
That linguistic evolution happened because computers perform so fast that we believed everything to be happening at once. In reality, computers must switch their attention to one task at a time—they just do it very quickly. Humans are no different—just slower.
Computers can’t do it.
You can’t do it.
And yet, we continue to try.
I bet you’re multitasking while reading this very article about multitasking! If you aren’t, you’re probably thinking about all of the other things you could either be doing instead or should be doing at the same time. We’re all guilty here. And there’s a reason for it.
Gary Keller wrote a phenomenal book (which I highly recommend) called The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary People. In it, he enumerates the historical, biological, and sociological reasons that we are prone to over-extending our attention.
1. Survival: Dividing our attention used to be vital to our very survival when our ancestors had to survey the foreground while attending to threats that may approach from the background.
2. Efficiency: Our human brains average over 4,000 thoughts per day and take in multiple times that amount of stimuli from our environments. Competition for our attention is constant and varied.
3. Addiction: Our current level of media multitasking actually produces a dopamine response in the brain which is our center for addiction and attraction.
4. Hopelessness: The sheer amount of things on our to-do lists leads us to believe that multitasking is the only way to get everything done. It is believed that the average worker switches among programs on their desktop near 37 times… per hour!
Despite the fact that we seem almost programmed to multitask, this tendency comes at a cost. The reality remains—we cannot physically attend to two things at once. Can you walk and chew gum at the same time? Sure. But chances are, if you get an important phone call, you’ll either slow down or spit out that gum in order to pay attention.
What this really comes down to is our focus—or lack, thereof. Our focus cannot be effectively divided. Rather, we must quickly switch our focus among tasks in order create the illusion that we can attend to two things at once. Scientists call this “task-switching,” and as you might imagine, younger brains are much better at this than others. Thus, Millennials and Gen Z’ers are better illusionists that most, but don’t be fooled. Even the youngest and most tech savvy among us cannot be 100% present and engaged at two things at once.
Our brains will not allow it.
So what are the costs to dividing our attention as such? Consider this:
• Multitaskers lose time: researchers estimate we lose 28% of an average workday to multitasking ineffectiveness.
• Multitaskers are bad guessers: they believe that tasks will actually take longer to complete than others and overestimate need
• Multitaskers make more mistakes: these loose ends pile up and are compounded by the tasks that never get finished
• Multitasking are slower witted: focus = funny, and you are not focused, my friend
So what can we do about this? Try the following:
• Don’t beat yourself up by knowing distraction is natural, normal, and ubiquitous
• Do decide on what matters most in the moment and give it your undivided attention
• Don’t create your own distractions by working in a place that is not conducive to your work style
• Do read The One Thing to find laser focus and achieve more with less.
Multitasking will always be challenge for us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take calculated steps to combat it. When the going gets tough, and that email box or text message is calling your name, remember this: “If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one.” –Russian Proverb
You deserve to be the beneficiary of your focus. Don’t settle for anything less.