Multitasking is really task-switching. Some people are good at it.

Can we really multitask effectively? Keep “many plates in the air”?

Most of us try, with varying degrees of success.

Here is an excerpt from an article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic about what is going on:

“Multitasking means screwing up several things at once,” somebody once said, wrongly. In fact, we don’t do many things at once, ever. We do many things in quick succession. And some of us are very good at it

“Everybody multitasks. We have conversations while driving. We answer email while browsing the Web. It’s hard to imagine living any other way. What would be the alternative, removing the seats from your car to ensure you only drive alone? Block every website not named Gmail? A world of constant single-tasking is too absurd to contemplate.

“But science suggests that multitasking as we know it is a myth. 

“Humans don’t really multitask,” said Eyal Ophir, the primary researcher with the Stanford Multitasking study. “We task-switch. We just switch very quickly between tasks, and it feels like we’re multitasking.” [See article.]

“In other words, you feel like you’re multitasking when you’re on the Web. But if you slow down and think about your attention, you’ll agree that answering email while browsing the Web is impossible. You answer email. Then you browse. Then back to email. Then again with the browsing. Like the pictures in a flip book, our focus is discrete. It is only with time and motion that our fluttering attention gains the illusion of multitasking.

“In 1946, the world was introduced to history’s first general-purpose electronic computer: ENIAC, nicknamed the “Giant Brain.” At the time, the word multi-tasking did not exist. It first appeared in a magazine called Datamation in 1966, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the following sentence: “Multi-tasking is defined as the use of a single CPU for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs.”

“Over the next 65 years, computers have become multitasking wizards, with the ability to download movies while playing music while running complex programs and executing a million other functions we take for granted, yet in 1946 would have seemed like magic. Meanwhile, the people operating these wondrous machines have not gotten any better at multitasking over the last 60 years. If anything, we have gotten worse.”

He continues:

“In The Shallows, a book about memory and the Internet, Nicholas Carr said the Web was changing the way we think, read and remember. Humans are hunters and hoarders of information. We seek, we find, we remember. If the Internet is helping us seek and find data, it is hurting our ability to absorb and retain it. Before the Internet, the theory goes, our attentions expanded vertically. With the Internet, our focus extends horizontally, and shallowly.

“Why do we think we’re so good at something that doesn’t exist? We compensate for our inability to multitask with a remarkable ability to single-task in rapid succession. Our brains aren’t a volley of a thousand arrows descending on an opposing army. Our brains are Robin Hood. One man with one bow firing on all comers, one at a time.”

Continued: If Multitasking Is Impossible, Why Are Some People So Good at It? By Derek Thompson, The Atlantic, Nov 17 2011.

~ ~ ~

The rare Supertasker

In an article on the topic, Kat McGowan notes:

“In a surprise discovery, researchers have identified a group of people whose cognitive abilities allow them to accomplish much more than the rest of us in any given moment. The secret of their success may be simply ignoring more—and doing and feeling less—than the average person.”

TV production control roomShe writes about Joe Perota, “a director for live multi-camera TV. While you’re watching Saturday Night Live or Monday Night Football, someone like him is standing in the control room before a massive bank of monitors, deciding what you will see.

“In the same situation, a normal person would panic and freeze up, but Perota seems to be having a peak experience. He’s grinning broadly, laughing loudly at each punchline. Processing massive amounts of information, forced to make decisions with split-second timing, all on the high-wire of live TV, Perota isn’t stressed out; he’s the picture of bliss.”

She adds that cognitive psychologist David Strayer of The University of Utah would call him a “supertasker”: “someone who can juggle two demanding tasks without pausing or making mistakes. The existence of supertaskers came as a surprise to Strayer, an attention expert. His experiments have proven that while we think we can handle several tasks at once—driving while fiddling with the radio, say—most of us can’t.

“We slow down, trip up. The very concept of multitasking is a myth. Our brains don’t do two things at once; instead, we rapidly switch between tasks, putting heavy burdens on attention, memory, and focus. In Strayer’s studies, talking on a cellphone while driving (perhaps the most ubiquitous type of multitasking) leaves people as cognitively impaired as if they’d had two or three drinks. About five years ago, however, Strayer found an exception to this rule…”

Read more in Meet The Super Taskers, by Kat McGowan, Psychology Today, March 10, 2014.

[Photo: Voice of America production control room from site:]


Here are some related articles on the topic:

Multitasking – or optimal performance
Our complex lives seem to demand multitasking to keep up. But can we be trying to balance too many plates in the air, doing too much at once.

Multi-tasking adversely affects learning
Multi-tasking adversely affects brain’s learning, UCLA psychologists report. Multi-tasking affects the brain’s learning systems.

Relieving anxiety: Slow down, you do too much
Trying to keep too many projects going at once – doing too much multitasking – is not only likely to decrease our real productivity, but also increase stress and anxiety.

Divided attention spans and creativity.


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What do you think about these topics?