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Why Multitasking Only Works To A Point

by David Brock on February 23rd, 2008

I’ve written before about the perils of multitasking and will continue to rant on this topic. I’m at fault for multitasking too much—I do emails on conference calls, update my calendar during web conferences, and manage to focus on watching the news rather than listening to my wife in the evenings.

Somehow multitasking has become the test of how important or how busy we are. I’ve been convinced that productivity and quality of results actually declines the more we multitask. Most of my evidence, however, has been anecdotal, or personal. (Sure I can quote accident figures about people talking on cell phones while driving.)

I read an interesting post in t the Wall Street Journal BizTech blog by Ben Worthen on February 1. In the post, he cites a study by researchers at the University of Oregon. Some points from his post: (paraphrasing Mr. Worthen’s observations.)

  • Researchers found the average person can only focus on four things at once.
  • Despite claims to the contrary, there is no correlation to age. Younger people cannot multitask more.
  • The complexity of things doesn’t matter. There is little difference in trying to recall very complex/intricate items or simple things. That means little things that we take for granted, like following the car in front of us, take as much effort as something more complex, like a difficult phone conversation, or reading.

He concludes, that new technologies provide us the capability to multitask even more, however, human evolution has not kept pace and we have real limitations. It’s an interesting post and worth reading. I still feel four tasks is overstating things a little.

The study does explain one thing…..why I still have problems walking and chewing gum at the same time……

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