Sep 20
8:44 PM

The Myth of Multitasking

I saw a great presentation today "Examining the Myth of Multitasking and
Its Impact on Learning" by USD Psychology Professor Anne Koenig. It was
a dynamic presentation full of multimedia and audience participation.

The audience was comprised of college faculty and administrators —
likely lifelong high-achievers, many of them juggling families along
with their scholarship and teaching. I mention this to point out how
particularly noteworthy it is that by the end of the session, she had
most of us laughing at our own ineptitude, utterly convinced that we're
lousy at multitasking and that we should probably stop trying.

Now, I know multitasking is practically a religion in law
school, so I expect a little skepticism, but bear with me. You might
just find this as liberating as I did.

Our conscious mind is the part of our mind that allows us to assess a
situation, comprehend what we are seeing, problem-solve, and create a
memory that can be accessed later. The conscious mind is limited in its
capacity – it can only process one thing at a time. So, even when we
think we are multitasking, we are really just switching our attention
back and forth between tasks. The typical reason we give for
multitasking is to save time, but all that switching means that it
actually takes longer to accomplish both task than if you'd just
completed each task separately.

Our unconscious mind, on the other hand, can process multiple pieces of
information simultaneously, and works much more quickly than the conscious
mind. The unconscious mind allows us to do routine tasks that don't require the attention of our conscious mind.

Many of our everyday tasks
are so routine that there's simply no need for the conscious mind to
engage most of the time. So, you might think that so long as one of the
tasks is routine enough to be managed by the unconscious mind, you can
successfully accomplish two tasks at once. Unfortunately, there are
still two problems.

First, no matter how routine the task, it is occasionally going to call
your attention away from the other higher-order task you are trying to
accomplish. These intermittent periods of inattention, however brief,
negatively impact the quality of your performance of the higher-order

Imagine you are talking on the phone and folding laundry. The mindless
task of folding laundry, will only occasionally and
briefly distract your conscious mind from the demands of the phone
conversation. Your friend chatting about her day may not even notice
that you're briefly distracted as you check to see that you've match the
right socks together. And even if she does notice, she likely won't
think too badly of you. But imagine that phone conversation was a job interview — you
wouldn't want to be distracted even for a split second.

We all know
that when a task is extremely important, we should give it our full,
undivided attention. The obvious corollary, that's a little harder to
swallow, is that when we attempt two tasks at once, we are implicitly
choosing to perform each of them less than perfectly. Of course, that's
not an invalid choice. It's not the end of the world if you mismatch
your socks or have to ask a friend to repeat a sentence or two. It
really depends on how important your higher-order task is. Just don't
kid yourself that there's no trade-off.

The second problem is that even the most routine tasks can be
occasionally punctuated by the unexpected. This is most tragically
exemplified in the dangers of distracted driving. For experienced
drivers, the mechanics of driving are routine. We adjust the steering
wheel and regulate our speed without thinking. Sometimes, we can be
half-way to work and not remember leaving our driveway. And *most* of
the time, our unconscious mind is all we need to get us to our

The problem is when another driver unexpectedly swerves
into our lane, or there's debris in the road, or traffic suddenly stops
short. When the unexpected occurs, our unconscious mind cannot assess
and problem-solve the way our conscious mind can. If our conscious mind
is occupied with another task, there's a delay as it has to first
recognize that there's a more pressing safety hazard, and then figure
out how to respond. That's why hands-free laws only address part of the
problem of distracted driving.

It's tempting to think you're the exception to the rule. I think there
were more than a few of us in the room who weren't completely convinced
until she had us do these exercises:

1. Monkey Business: 
2. Whodunnit? Video: 
3. Tones & Letters: (this is similar though not identical to the exercise we did in the session)

I won't spoil the surprise here, but I highly encourage you to watch the
videos and try the exercises. It'll only take a few minutes and you might just come away with a commitment to minimize the multitasking in your life. [JML]

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