Weekly Feature

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The Multitasking Menace

November 29, 2009
by findingDulcinea Staff
Our culture idolizes the multitasker. The woman who makes business deals while instant-messaging a co-worker, emailing her weekend schedule to the babysitter, reading the paper, and eating her breakfast deserves our kudos, right? No. Multitasking reduces efficiency, inhibits creativity, damages your mental and physical health, and invites danger.

Multitasking Leads to Trouble at Work

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Our impetus for multitasking is rooted in an urge to keep up with others. If we aren’t juggling several tasks at once we feel inadequate. People are continually striving for self-improvement and multitasking appears to be one more way to increase our efficiency. A 2003 National Post column cites research from Carnegie Mellon that demonstrates just the opposite: when two different parts of the brain work on two tasks at once the result is “a net loss in mental efficiency.”
According to a 2004 article in the Baltimore Sun, multitasking doesn’t just decrease workers’ productivity: it can cause dangerous accidents. “In addition to contributing to communications lapses, rudeness and employee stress, multitasking is considered a factor in more serious workplace mishaps—from medication and treatment errors in hospitals to near misses in the skies.”

Multitasking Endangers Both Yourself and Others

Distracted driving causes nearly 80 percent of car crashes; and cell phone use is the main source of distraction. The findingDulcinea article “LOL (Look out for the Lamppost)” explores the many ways that talking and texting on your cell phone while you travel can prove hazardous, whether you’re walking, biking or driving.
According to Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, executive director of the Center for BrainHealth, multitasking can also be damaging to one’s physical and mental health. The Dallas Morning News reprints a speech by Chapman, who cites research that multitasking increases one’s level of cortisol, a “stress hormone…[that can] impair memory function. Additionally, multi-tasking was found to make one more susceptible to infectious disease.”

Multitasking Interferes with Social Relationships, Learning and Creativity

According to Time magazine, multitasking also poses more subtle dangers. Younger people who have grown up with the Internet neglect interacting with family members who are sitting in the same room with them, because they’re too busy instant-messaging their friends and attending to other distractions on their laptop. This may translate into a future inability to focus on any single person or thing, which can be detrimental in an academic environment. Claudia Koonz, a history professor at Duke University, says of her students, “Their belief in the simple answer put together in a visual way, is, I think dangerous...you have to stay with a topic and pursue it deeply, rather than go across the surface with your toolbar.”

The Solution?

Okay, multitasking doesn’t work. So, how should you tackle the towering pile of work sitting on your desk? Penelope Trunk, author of “The Brazen Careerist,” suggests the following. Put the most important thing at the top of your to-do list and get it done first. Set a time each day to check email, and break projects into manageable chunks. Know what time of day you do your best work. Her final gem: “Dare to be slow … someone who is doing the highest priority task is probably not answering incoming e-mail while they're doing it.”
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