Tell me if this has ever happened to you. You treat yourself to a dinner with a friend, who you haven’t seen in a while. The dim lighting adds a charming ambiance, the bread basket is choc-full of warm dinner rolls, and your conversation is riveting… until your friend pulls out their cell phone. He or she begins reading missed texts they have been getting since the beginning of dinner, and the conversation comes to a slow and bumpy halt. In an attempt to keep the conversation going you ask another question, your friend doesn’t answer because they are too preoccupied with their phone. You continue talking to keep the conversation rolling as before. Meanwhile, you’re thinking to yourself, “I’m not sure if he or she is paying attention to me…” I’ll answer that for you. No. No they’re not paying attention to you.
THEN, your friend asks, “wait, what did you say? Sorry, ‘blah-blah-blah’ texted me.” Does this annoy you as much as it annoys me?
WE ARE TERRIBLE AT MULTITASKING. Here’s Why:
Humans are not biologically wired to pay attention to more than one brain-consuming stimulus at once, according to John Medina, author of Brain Rules. People will disagree with the previous statement and wonder, what about being able to walk and talk at the same time? Or being able to chew gum while reading? Technically speaking, yes, the brain is multitasking in these instances, however, the brain is not being challenged to pay attention to more than one attention demanding stimulus. You don’t pay attention to putting one foot in front of the other when you’re walking. You also don’t may attention to opening and closing your jaw when chewing gum. So when I say the brain cannot multitask when it comes to paying attention, that is true, similar to the ‘cell phone at dinner example’ above.
The brain processes things you need to pay attention to in a sequential order, according to Medina. Let me explain this with another example. You are reading over an analysis from a customer on a task completed by your company. This is a long and dry analysis so you turn on music to keep yourself from getting bored. While you are reading this analysis you are getting texts from co-worker concerning a different job.
Task 1: Your prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area in charge of decision-making, problem solving, and planning, lights up when your eyes shift to your computer screen. The PFC alerts the rest of your brain that you need to begin comprehending the customer analysis.
Task 2: With the attention alert from the PFC, the brain searches for the necessary path of brain cells to complete reading and comprehension of the customer analysis.
Task 3: The necessary brain cells needed to complete the comprehension of the customer analysis are turned ON.
Task 4: PFC activity spikes again when your cell phone vibrates. Your coworker has just texted you about more information on a different campaign for your company.
Task 5: The PFC sends out a search for a different set of brain cells to respond to the text because the way you respond to a text from your coworker may be different than the way you respond to your customer’s analysis.
Task 6: The brain cells necessary for responding to the text are turned on.
Task 7: Your attention shifts back to your customer’s analysis and the process repeats this same cycle in the same sequence over and over again. Not to mention you have music playing in the background.
It is impossible for your brain to process information as efficiently as it would without the extra text message and music stimuli. These other stimuli are simply distractions and obstacles your brain must eliminate before processing the correct information. According to Medina, this is why people find themselves losing track of the work they just completed. Medina says, studies show that a person who is interrupted of their task of priority takes 50% longer to complete the task. Think about the number of errors that occur when this happens? It’s about the same at 50% more errors. Ever wonder why it’s illegal to text while driving?
Most people who have a steady job do not have the time, patience, or money to make 50% more errors on a task that takes double the time to complete.
A word of advice: When you are trying to complete a task that demands your attention, be sure to give it all of your attention. Put your phone on silent and a place it outside of your field of view. Also consider turning off your music or picking a genre that is composed of simple melodies without lyrics. The task will be completed faster and with less errors. Who doesn’t want that?
Be a better employee. As Paolo Cardini would say, forget MULTItasking, try MONOtasking.
Please don’t hesitate to disagree with me. Prove me wrong and tell me your story of someone you know who is a super multitasker! Follow my blog for my insights on neuroscience to improve yourself as an employee!