When it comes to paying attention, multitasking is a myth:
“Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. At first that might sound confusing; at one level the brain does multitask. You can walk and talk at the same time. Your brain controls your heartbeat while you read a book. Pianists can play a piece left hand and right hand simultaneously. Surely this is multitasking. But I am talking about the brain’s ability to pay attention. It is the resource you forcibly deploy while trying to listen to a boring lecture at school. It is the activity that collapses as your brain wanders during a tedious presentation at work. This attentional ability is not capable of multitasking.
“Recently, I agreed to help the high-school son of a friend of mine with some homework, and I don’t think I will ever forget the experience. Eric had been working for about a half-hour on his laptop when I was ushered to his room. An iPod was dangling from his neck, the ear buds cranking out Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, and Green Day as his left hand reflexively tapped the backbeat. The laptop had at least 11 windows open, including two IM screens carrying simultaneous conversations with MySpace friends. Another window was busy downloading an image from Google. The window behind it had the results of some graphic he was altering for MySpace friend No. 2, and the one behind that held an old Pong game paused mid-pong.
Buried in the middle of this activity was a word-processing program holding the contents of the paper for which I was to provide assistance. “The music helps me concentrate,” Eric declared, taking a call on his cell phone. “I normally do everything at school, but I’m stuck. Thanks for coming.” Stuck indeed. Eric would make progress on a sentence or two, then tap out a MySpace message, then see if the download was finished, then return to his paper. Clearly, Eric wasn’t concentrating on his paper. Sound like someone you know?
To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously. Eric and the rest of us must jump from one thing to the next.”
– John Medina Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.
Businesses and Universities constantly praise multitasking but the brain is a sequential processor. Overloading it with too many attention-rich stimuli will result in mistakes and reduce productivity. In our world of smart phones, tablet PCs, and social networks, we should consider Medina’s comments and always remember our brain’s limitations when it comes to paying attention.