Join The Conversation With Mishpacha's Weekly Newsletter

Time for It All

Esther Ilana Rabi

Checking e-mails during a conference call, folding laundry while reviewing homework: Multitasking has become a badge of honor. But what price do we pay for doing two — or more — things at once?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

 Mishpacha image

QUICK ON THE DRAW “Juggling is an illusion. In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession. Multitasking is actually task switching”

T hink you’re doing two things at once when you multitask? Not exactly. You’re actually shifting your attention from one task to the next.

The brain is like a time-share apartment; it can house two families, but only one at a time. “Juggling is an illusion,” writes highly successful entrepreneur Gary W. Keller, author of The ONE Thing. “In reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession. [Multitasking] is actually task switching.”

Switching from task to task uses brain power. Part of the brain focuses on goal shifting — “I’m going to do this now instead of that” — and part of it turns off the rules for job one and turns on the rules for job two. This makes you less efficient, not more.

Want to see for yourself? Time yourself doing the following: write the words “I love to multitask” on the top line of a paper; then, on the line under it, write the numbers from one to 16. Now do it again, but after each letter, move to the lower line and write a number. The second time takes longer, the quality of your work probably suffered (is the writing harder to read this time?), and you felt more stress. Errors may also have crept in.

So why is it no problem to walk and chew gum at the same time? Activities that you’ve practiced a lot can be done simultaneously, as long as they don’t draw on the same brain areas. Writing an e-mail and talking both need the brain’s language channel, making it hard to do both at the same time, but talking while chopping onions is easy. Add a complication, like changing the recipe or thinking of a tactful response to a comment, and you’ll slow down as you switch from multitasking to concentrating on one task.

Paying superficial attention to incoming information, like listening to your daughter tell you what she dreamed while skimming the headlines, is not multitasking. Researchers describe it as “continuous partial attention” — it doesn’t take our full attention, we don’t have to respond in any way, and it only demands that we pay attention to one thing after another, not two things at once.

The best the brain can do when we want to multitask is help us ignore distractions. Dr. Michael Halassa, a neuroscientist at New York University School of Medicine, believes that studying multitaskers’ brains will help him figure out what goes wrong in patients with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or schizophrenia. One thing patients with these disorders have in common is “a really hard time suppressing distracting stimuli,” says Halassa.

The circuits that let most people ignore irrelevant input without even thinking about it are the same circuits that, when damaged, make it difficult for people with ADHD to concentrate, or for people with certain types of autism to socialize instead of “stimming” (indulging in self-stimulating behavior, usually repetitive) to control their sensory overload. In other words, “multitasker” is shorthand for “unable to focus.”

Neurotypicals (people with typically developed brains — for example, without autism or ADHD) can decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

Speaking two languages improves your ability to multitask. Bilinguals have to block out one language while using the other

If you want to read in a noisy room, you can give high priority to the book in your hands, lowering your level of attention to what you hear. And you might stay in that mode until, say, you hear a child screaming. That’s what makes humans so interesting, says neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Weissman of the University of Michigan. “We’re not like jellyfish — it’s not like when you poke us, we always do the same thing.”

Who Does It Best?

About two percent of us are exceptional. “Supertaskers” are people whose focus improves with added stimulation. Most of us assume that distinction is ours, although there’s a 98 percent chance that it’s not. And the better you think you are at multitasking, the worse you probably are. “You are your own worst judge of how good a multitasker you are,” says psychologist Dr. Art Markman, author of Smart Thinking, because the brain area used for multitasking is also the area used for judging your skill at it.

No amount of practice is going to make a person better at it, either. The more often you multitask, the more trouble you’ll have organizing your thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information.

And multitasking itself is a self-reinforcing loop. “We’re being conditioned to multitask,” says Dr. Gloria Mark, professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine. “You check your e-mail and every so often, you get a hit, some great e-mail received, and that reinforces your e-mail-checking habit. After being frequently interrupted, people develop a short attention span and begin to self-interrupt.” (excerpted)

Related Stories

Focus on the Finicky

Faigy Schonfeld

No more food fights! Tips, tricks, and insider secrets on how to feed your picky eater without feuds

A New Identity

As told to Rochel Burstyn

As a kid, as soon as my parents settled down for their Shabbos afternoon nap, I’d disappear into the...

Lost & Found

Brachi Blumenberg

A son searching for his father, a savior looking for the people he saved, a woman seeking out a chil...

Share this page with a friend. Fill in the information below, and we'll email your friend a link to this page on your behalf.

Your name
Your email address
You friend's name
Your friend's email address
Please type the characters you see in the image into the box provided.

Evolution vs. Revolution
Shoshana Friedman I call it the “what happened to my magazine?” response
Up, Up, and Away
Rabbi Moshe Grylak What a fraught subject Eretz Yisrael is, to this day
Where Do You Come From?
Yonoson Rosenblum Could they be IDF officers with no Jewish knowledge?
Heaven Help Us
Eytan Kobre Writing about anti-Semitism should rouse, not soothe
Work/Life Solutions with Chedva Kleinhandler
Moe Mernick “Failures are our compass to success”
An Un-Scientific Survey
Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Are Jerusalemites unfriendly? Not necessarily
Out of Anger
Jacob L. Freedman How Angry Lawyer was finally able to calm down
5 Things You Didn’t Know about…Yitzy Bald
Riki Goldstein He composed his first melody at eight years old
When the Floodgates of Song Open, You’re Never Too Old
Riki Goldstein Chazzan Pinchas Wolf was unknown until three years ago
Who Helped Advance These Popular Entertainers?
Riki Goldstein Unsung deeds that boosted performers into the limelight
Your Task? Ask
Faigy Peritzman A tangible legacy I want to pass on to my children
Are You There?
Sarah Chana Radcliffe Emotional withdrawal makes others feel lonely, abandoned
A Peace of a Whole
Rebbetzin Debbie Greenblatt Love shalom more than you love being right
Seminary Applications
Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, as told to Ariella Schiller It’s just as hard for seminaries to reject you