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Multi-tasking doesn't work because it doesn't exist

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MULTI-TASKING was popular in the business world for many years. It was thought that with proper training, our mind would be able to work faster and manage several tasks at once -- a perfect fit with our developing technology.

Unfortunately, evidence to the contrary is accumulating, and study after study shows multi-tasking is almost like working part time. It decreases our productivity by 40 per cent. It takes an incredible 25 minutes to recover from a simple interruption such as a phone call or email, and it is estimated that multi-tasking costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.

You may wonder why multi-tasking is not effective. The reason is simple: Multi-tasking doesn't work because it doesn't exist. Even with years of training, our mind is only capable of having one thought at a time or doing one task at a time. When we believe we are multi-tasking, we are in fact switching back and forth from task to task. The process is fast and gives us the illusion of doing several things at once. This practice, done on a daily basis, is not only ineffective, but it has many negative effects on our life. It leads to a new condition called ADT, attention deficit trait. When overloaded with incoming messages and competing tasks, we are unable to prioritize and become irritable and inefficient. By trying to multi-task, we use our brain less effectively. We are less flexible, our memory is decreased and our thinking becomes very quick, but also very shallow -- a dangerous combination.

Our personality and social life are also influenced by multi-tasking. We grow impatient, dissatisfied with slowness and uncomfortable with silence. We develop difficulties in communicating and developing deep relationships.

Multi-tasking is dangerous. We know about driving and texting starting to cause more motor vehicle accidents than drunk driving, but it is becoming more and more frequent to hear stories of injured pedestrians unaware they were crossing a busy street while texting.

It is crucial to stop this ineffective and dangerous habit.

First we need to control the technology around us by at least turning off audible and visual alerts for email and only check them at specific prearranged times.

The Pomodoro technique is simple and effective in helping us control multi-tasking. The basic principles are as follows:

  • We structure our day by writing down the tasks that need to be accomplished.
  • Then we prioritize our tasks and choose a task that ranks highest in the priority list and commit to finish it.
  • We work on it for 25 minutes straight without interruption.
  • After 25 minutes, we take a five-minute break.
  • After the break, we return to the task for another uninterrupted 25 minutes and continue the process until the task is finished.

It is easy to remember and will help us stop the damage caused by multi-tasking not only in our work life, but also in our personal life. We need to recognize that single-tasking will not only make us more efficient, but will improve our relationships and our brain functioning.


Philippe Erhard is a sports medicine physician in Winnipeg, originally from France, and author of the book Being: A Hiking Guide through Life.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 3, 2014 A9

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