The truth about multi-tasking

We all know the old adage that men incline to monomania and that if you want someone who can do three things at once, all of them expertly, ask a woman. Well, not according to this week's New Scientist. In fact, says the journal, because of the way our brains prioritise stimulus and response activities, neither gender is really much good at multi-tasking.

Last Updated: 04 Jul 2016

Psychologist David Meyer has a stark warning for anyone tempted to answer a few e-mails while conducting a job interview, for example. ‘There's no way you wind up being as good.' And forget trying to drive and talk on the phone - even handsfree. One study from the University of Utah found that people using cellphones drive no better than drunks (it's the fact that the other person is not in the car with you, and thus unaware of the hazards you face, that is apparently so distracting in this case).

To use a computing analogy, our brains are serial rather than parallel processors and we analyse and respond to the world around us one piece at a time. By rapidly switching from one task to another and back again, we fool ourselves into believing that we are multi-tasking, but in fact we are just doing several things badly instead of one thing well.

Of course, in the workplace context, perfection is often less important than speed, so there will always be a place for multi-tasking men and women in the office. Telling your boss that you are late with that report because you wanted to give it your undivided attention will remain a calculated risk…

Originally published on April 13 2007.

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