From Multi to Mono: The Greatness of Monotasking

For many years now, as technology has advanced, our habits as a society have shifted to accommodate multi-tasking—and this is something that is expected now. We might chuckle when older folks talk about our being plugged in all the time or how fast everything keeps being upgraded but for the most part, we shake our heads and think that they just haven’t gotten with the program yet. It seems like the natural thing to do, you have a tiny computer in your pocket and you’re wasting valuable time at a red light: why wouldn’t you check your texts? Heck, flagging isn’t just for books anymore!

We can call, cook, tweet and watch a slideshow of all the pictures we’ve ever taken all at the same time. We must be pretty close to figuring out how to be superpeople, right? Right? …Guys?

Turns out, science is shutting this party down. Productivity expert Julie Morgenstern (no, really, she’s written five six books) says in an interview by Forbes:

It has been scientifically demonstrated that the brain cannot effectively or efficiently switch between tasks, so you lose time. It takes four times longer to recognize new things so you’re not saving time; multitasking actually costs time. You also lose time because you often make mistakes. In addition, studies have shown that we have a much lower retention rate of what we learn when multitasking, which means you could have to redo the work or you may not do the next task well because you forgot the information you learned. Everyone’s complaining of memory issues these days—they’re symptoms of this multitasking epidemic.

That’s pretty condemning. There’s also the much-grieved etiquette argument. Incredibly enough, it’s slowly begun to be acceptable to dismiss the company of those around you in favor of others. I have had people answer calls while out at lunch with me, and, on occasion, I’ve done the same. Apologies are all good and well, but can these things really not wait at all? Paolo Cardini gives a brief TED talk on the subject of monotasking (his accent is rather heavy, it might take a few seconds to get used to, but it’s an endearing clip). He gives a personal example of how his judgment/concentration lapsed while grilling due to trying to do too much at once.

I’ll leave you with this final thought, which comes from Dr. Adam Gazzaley, who is the Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at the University of California, San Francisco. He’s also an associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry at said institution. (This bit is from an NPR talk titled, Does Multitasking Lead to a More Productive Brain?:

Well, we’re learning a lot more. I think the advance of brain imaging and what we call functional brain imaging, seeing what your brain is doing while we challenge it, has really clarified a lot of what’s happening.

A lot of this has been suspect for a long time, but we’re learning a lot more of the details, and it certainly seems that our brains are not – you know, it’s becoming increasingly viewed that our brains are not highly adapted for multiple streams of information at the same time but rather focusing at a particular direction.

And we see that usually what happens when you demand great degrees of quality or of care […] what happens as opposed to actually doing two things at the same time, it seems that you switch between these things. And with each switch, there’s a cost, a cost in performance that occurs.

I’m going to go ahead and believe the man that requires two sentences of SCIENCE to describe what he does in any given day.


Do you take your cell phone in the bathroom? 75% of Americans admit to calling, texting on the toilet
Seinfeld: George’s Toilet Book
Julie Morgenstern Author Page
How Multitasking Hurts Your Brain (and Your Effectiveness at Work)
Paolo Cardini (TED Talk): Forget Multitasking, Try Monotasking
Does Multitasking Lead to a More Productive Brain?

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