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In Praise of Unitasking

Arianna Huffington / 2 September 2009

It wasn’t much of a surprise when news came that one of the air-traffic controllers handling the small airplane that tragically crashed into a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson was chatting on the phone even while giving instructions to 
the pilot.

It’s unclear how much, if at all, this contributed to the deadly collision, but it’s definitely clear that multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This is why I am speaking out in praise of unitasking.  Think you’re able to competently do two things at once? Like read this post while talking on the phone or IM’ing a colleague? Well, think again — actually, don’t think again now — that would be more multitasking. Wait until you’re done reading and then think again.

Study after study has shown the same thing: we think we’re doing two things at once, when, really, we’re doing only one and just switching back and forth — with a huge efficiency loss in the process. “Multitasking,” Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of  CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! told the New York Times last year, “gives the illusion that we’re simultaneously tasking, but we’re really not. It’s like playing tennis with three balls.”

Studies of young adults doing math and geometry problems by University of Michigan psychology professor David Meyer showed that the tasks took longer when participants had to switch back and forth.

What does this mean in the workplace? One recent study of workers at Microsoft found that it took them an average of 15 minutes to get their focus back after multitasking with a bit of e-mail or IM’ing. Another study, from the University of California, Irvine, found that workers were interrupted and switched what they were doing roughly every 11 minutes. Even worse, every time that happened it took fully 25 minutes to get back to the original task.

Of course, outside the office, the consequences can be much worse than just lost time. A study released last month by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting while driving increased the chances of a crash by 23 times. This confirmed results of a British study of 17 to 24-year-olds that found that reaction times while driving were 35 per cent slower when the driver was texting — which means that driving while texting is more dangerous than driving while drunk.

This isn’t to say that the health risk of multitasking is confined to the roads. Gloria Mark, a professor and one of the authors of the UC Irvine study, found that after 20 minutes of interrupted activity, workers reported higher levels of stress and pressure.

This can start a vicious circle that can, in turn, lead to higher levels of stress hormones and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. “Why are people in large cities more angry?” Dr Alan Keen of Australia’s Central Queensland University told the Daily Mail. “If I’m living in a big city with a busy job and I’m multitasking and I’m a busy parent, all that translates into chemical changes in the brain.”

Speaking of parenting, one of my last memories of my mother was, in fact, the last time she was angry with me before she died. She was upset with me when she saw me talking with my children and opening my mail at the same time. She despised multitasking. She believed it was a way to miss life, to miss the gifts that come only when you give 100 percent of yourself to a task, a relationship, a moment.

Worst of all, we’re teaching all the wrong lessons to our children, who are growing up in a world where multitasking is the norm. But what effect will it have on their brains, and their ability to learn? Dr Hallowell has coined the term, “attention deficit trait,” which, as distinct from attention deficit disorder, is caused by external factors. “As our minds fill with noise, the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and gradually to anything,” he said in the Daily Mail article.

And what about the hidden costs? The short-term gain we get — or think we get — by multitasking is obvious: I read three e-mails while handling a call! But what are we missing?

What, as Don Rumsfeld might say, are the unknown unknowns?

Part of the essence of creativity is absorption. It can’t be scheduled, or checked off as we answer nine e-mails. Whether it’s meditation, prayer or just taking a walk, allowing yourself to recharge and be in the moment is essential to creativity and inspiration.

It’s nice to see President Barack Obama being so focused on his daughters while on vacation, as well. Let’s just hope he sometimes finds the time to turn his infamous BlackBerry off.

And when you return, hopefully recharged, remember that multitasking may seem tempting, but the costs are high. Become a unitasker, instead.

Arianna Huffington can be reached at: arianna@huffingtonpost.com

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