Shards of Consciousness

The Delusion of Multitasking

So we're electrified, computerized, and webified. We have eight windows open on our desktop while listening to our mp3s, working on our next project, and studying history. We are MULTITASKING and pitying the poor old folks who can only do one thing at a time.


You've been around. You've heard the analogies between computers and the human mind. Our brain is our hardware and our beliefs our software. As far as they go, the analogies are true. How does your computer do multitasking? Unless it has more than one processor or a mulitcore processor, computers multitask be focusing on one thing at a time. They just do it really, really fast, spending a few microseconds on first one task, then the next, then the next in round robin fashion.

The multitasking of the computer is an illusion. The belief that we can multitask is even more of an illusion. We have one processor, our brain, and it's a whole lot slower than a computer. It takes time to go from one task to another. Attention is like a flashlight. We aim it first at one thing, then another. We can't point it at more than one thing at a time. Sure, our senses work simultaneously. But our perceptions always stay in the background unless we pay attention to them - unless we actively point the flashlight their way.

What we are really doing when we try to multitask is several things poorly. It takes time to focus on the task at hand, time to get into the mindset that it requires. As we try to juggle more tasks, more and more time is spent on achieving focus; less and less time actually being focused. That project we were working on? It will be mediocre, at best. The music we were listening to? We won't remember what it was. Those windows we had open? We'll forget what they're for. The history we were studying? We won't remember it past tomorrow.In the process of trying to get a lot done at once, we end up getting less done, and what we do get done is of poorer quality than if we had focused on it alone.

If you still want to live with the delusion that you are multitasking, go ahead. Sometimes I fall into that trap. Then I ask myself "Do I want to be busy, or do I want to be good?" This usually wakes me up.

2 Pingbacks to The Delusion of Multitasking

  • [...] If today is December 15, it must be time for the short (or long) answer carnival. It was an experiment that veers a bit from the original intent (time management and attention focus) and turned into the success posted here. Rick Cockrum presents The Delusion of Multitasking posted at Shards of Consciousness. [...]
  • [...] Welcome to Episode 12 of the Shards of Consciousness Podcast. This episode is based on an article originally posted in August of 2006 - The Delusion of Multitasking. [...]

9 Responses to The Delusion of Multitasking

  • You've obviously never tried being a mother - or an elementary school teacher. It's a requirement of both. As I take my tongue out of my cheek - you make some excellent points. We all try to do far too much in too little time and none of it well. Back to basics and the simple life.

  • I've been a father with three boys within 3years of each other. Does that count?
    I know I never would have made it as an elementary teacher. My hat is definitely off to you there.

    Not back to basics or a simple life. What got me started on this is reports I've seen over the years of people, especially the 'wired generation', who think they can do four or five things at one time and think they are doing them well when they're not, and in many cases seem to be training themselves into a semi-ADD type of mindset.

    #299 | Comment by Rick on August 11, 2006 1:33am
  • Multi-tasking is exactly how they describe the teenagers and young adults of today especially while chatting on AOL, surfing myspace, watching TV, burning a CD and downloading mp3's AND talking on their cell phones. I know its true as my two oldest are 21 and 19 year old girls that when asked in the midst of the storm "what are you doing" and the reply is "nothing"

    Rick - You're right though even with computers things happen one at a time just FASTER. I do tons of things at the same time but QUALITY work only happens when I clear everything away and Focus on ONE thing. Great article!

  • Hi Tammy!

    Reading about young people is what got me started on this article (and seeing how my own act, as well as me at times, unfortunately). It's like you say, "QUALITY work only happens when I clear everthing away and Focus on ONE thing."

    Thank you for the compliment! You're welcome here anytime.

    #308 | Comment by Rick on August 13, 2006 5:11pm
  • I found this article trying to use the net in a psychic way to decide if I should work half time at the Firm and do my own thing the other half time or decide between the two. Any take on that?

  • Hello Rick:

    I tend to agree with your approach. Multitasking has become the default behaviour for many societies. My only proviso it that a lot of my more creative thinking takes place against a musical backdrop.

  • I often listen to music while I work, too, Galba. As you say, though, it's a backdrop, like the sound of the wind or leaves, not something I'm actually paying attention to.

  • As a first year high school teacher who myself finds it hard to focus on one thing at a time (at the age of 23), unless I am physically in front of the class teaching, I wholeheartedly agree. Never an assertive person, I knew this year would force me to be, but it wasn't until a mentor said directly "They are not learning if they are listening to their iPods and texting" that I realized what a detriment to true education this mindset is.

    Should have been obvious, but they themselves seem so convinced...the failing grades of one class in particular also led to this conclusion. They had no huge discipline problems, but I realized after awhile that their quiet came from excessive self-distraction, with no real learning happening there.

    #6993 | Comment by Abigail on May 31, 2009 4:04pm
  • Abigail,

    As a teacher, you see in your students at first hand the effects of not paying attention to what you're doing. Now, if we could find a way to convince them of the relationship between ipods and celphones, not learning, and the probable result in their future, we'd see an instant improvement.

    Good luck to you.

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