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multitasking or multiswitching?

“Wrong!” I want to shout every time I read that multitasking is a myth. I can write a blog post, answer email, keep an eye on my incoming text messages, and have a mid-morning snack.

What I’m doing is asking my brain to constantly make switches. Ready, set, go. Start writing. Switch, read email. Switch, take a drink. Switch, compose answer. Switch, take a bite. Switch, read a snippet from an article. Switch, write some more. Switch, quickly read and respond to a text message. Switch, … .

Our brains are amazing organs. Every time I automatically make a switch, my brain has to seek a stored memory and reaction, then re-route seeing, hearing, thinking, muscle action, and coordinate a response.

“See? I can multitask.” I want to believe that I am organized, quick, and efficient. I can do it all. But after years of multitasking, it is starting to sink in: I’m not multitasking – I’m “multiswitching.” The fact is, when I switch my attention, I become less organized, quick, and efficient. This is a hard lesson, one I didn’t want to believe in spite of a convincing, growing body of research: when we divide our attention we waste time and lower our work quality.

How did I learn this lesson? I sat in my reading chair one day and picked up a book. I’d been eagerly awaiting this book and had bought it in paper not as an e-book. I started reading. Less than three pages later I was answering a text message. Then my email “pinged,” and I was off to my desk. The next afternoon, I had to start over from the beginning. The same thing happened. I stared from my desk at my reading chair that is less than four feet away. Had I lost the ability to read a book? I looked at the pile of four books, all partly read. It was clear that the answer was, “Yes.”

I began an experiment. I set a timer for 10 minutes. Could I stay focused for 10 minutes on my book? I looked up many times, but I made it. 20 minutes? After several days, I found I could sit and read again, even become absorbed in my book.

I still “multiswitch” much of the time. But I continue to create experiments, working to regain my ability to focus on one person, one task, one thing at a time.

What experiment will you try to move beyond “multiswitching?”

*Image credit: Unknown creator, Shambhala Sun, May 2014

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Kathleen, I also multitask/multiswitch as a matter of course and can move quite smoothly between various tasks; at other times, especially when reading or writing, I can focus on just the one. The wisdom, I think, is to know what’s needed and when. All the best to you in your experiments.

    May 30, 2014

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