Reading & Multitasking

Reading & Multitasking

I am ashamed to admit this, but it took me four days to open and read the letters I received last Saturday. I kept wanting to have an uninterrupted moment to sit down and read them. I wanted to devote my complete attention to the task. I am not sure if I am just very busy, or if the way we live our lives now allows for so much interruption that we only know how to multitask, but it is really hard to multitask while reading a letter! Apparently, this is a good thing as all of this multitasking has made us very unproductive. Yes, you heard that right, UNproductive! I’ve done some research.

In an article by Susan Kuchinskas for WebMD, reviewed by Patricia A. Farrell, PhD, it apparently has been shown that multitasking is a myth. Our brains are actually not doing two things at once, but are instead switching back and forth very rapidly between two things.


“Speed is the modern, natural high,” says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, MD, director of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury, Mass. He goes on to say, “What people really do is shift their attention from one task to the next in rapid succession. That reduces the quality of the work on any one task, because you’re ignoring it for milliseconds at a time.”

According to a University of Michigan study completed for the Federal Aviation Administration, this tiny bit of time can add up to big inefficiencies. And, what’s more, there are actually health risks to multitasking.

When the body is under stress, including the self-imposed kind, more cortisol floods into the bloodstream. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can damage the heart, cause high blood pressure, suppress the immune system, and make you susceptible to type 2 diabetes.

I think I need to post this in my office. I work for a charity that has a major health initiative. However, while I was writing a document the other day, a women I work with burst into my office and pointed out that she had sent me an email 10 minutes prior, and asked what did I think about it? When I told her that I was writing something and had not looked at my email in the last 10 minutes she replied, “It’s a digital age, Terry, keep up!” Really?

I decided to go to one of the sources of our “digital age”, Google, to see how they handled multitasking. What I found was most interesting.

Douglas Merrill, a former Google employee, had this to say, “I attended lots of meetings in which others had their laptops open. It wasn’t that these people didn’t care about what was being said. It’s just that they had lots of other things to do, and juggling several tasks at once seemed like a good idea. It wasn’t. Soon it became clear that many people were missing important stuff in meetings. They weren’t paying attention to what was going on around them because their brains were otherwise occupied. So the information shared in meetings never had a chance to break into their short-term memory banks. Fairly soon, it became clear that having laptops open in meetings was lowering productivity instead of raising it. So we declared some meetings no-laptop zones. This was at GOOGLE!

In an article that Merrill wrote for Forbes, he does a good job of explaining this phenomenon,

            “I know, you think you’re good at multitasking. And to some degree, you are. You can walk and chew gum at the same time. Folding laundry while talking on the phone? Not a problem. A clown can ride a unicycle while juggling brightly colored balls. This form of multitasking works because these are rote tasks that don’t require much brainpower.

Unfortunately, our brains just aren’t equipped for multitasking tasks that do require brainpower. Our short-term memories can only store between five and nine things at once.

When you’re trying to accomplish two dissimilar tasks, each one requiring some level of consideration and attention, multitasking falls apart. Your brain just can’t take in and process two simultaneous, separate streams of   information and encode them fully into short-term memory.

When information doesn’t make it into short-term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory for recall later.

If you can’t recall it, you can’t use it.  And, presumably, you are trying to learn something from whatever you are doing, right?  Instead of actually helping you, multitasking works against you. It’s making you less efficient, not more.”

Today is the end of the second week of this project. I haven’t written back to anyone from last week yet. My plan is to do that this weekend. Of course, today is also the day when I will visit my mailbox again. Now I am worried that there WILL be letters!

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