The Wilson Quarterly

Anyone who has cowered in the back of a taxi as the driver simultaneously talked on a cell phone, made change, tore off a paper receipt, and tried to pull into a busy street can attest: Multi­tasking is a bad ­idea.

Multitasking no longer defines the brilliant leader or the precocious overachiever, writes Christine Rosen, senior editor of The New Atlantis. In reality, multitasking means paying incomplete attention to two or more tasks at once. Extreme multitasking costs the American economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity, according to one survey. It takes workers distracted by ­e-­mails and phone calls an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after each interruption, another study ­says.

The proportion of people who almost simultaneously watch television, surf the Web, play video games, text-message, talk on the phone, and ­e-­mail rose from 16 percent in 1999 to 26 percent in 2005, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported two years ago. Med­ia multitasking has spawned a new condition called attention deficit trait, whose symptoms are similar to those of attention deficit disorder, according to a Massachusetts ­psychia­trist.

Trying to do too many things at once adversely affects learning. Information taken in by multi­taskers goes into the striatum, a “new learning” area of the brain, instead of the hippocampus, a region that stores and facilitates the recall of information. Widespread multitasking may produce a generation of very quick but very shallow thinkers, according to Jane Healy, an educational psy­chol­ogist.

William James, the Harvard psychologist, wrote in the late 19th century that the youthful mind is characterized by an “extreme mo­bility of the attention,” and that the transition from youthful distraction to mature concentration is a matter of disci­pline and character. Some people, James said, never move beyond getting their work done only in the “inter­stices of their ­mind-­wandering.”

Rosen reasons that multi­taskers may simply adjust to constant stimulation and block it out like air­plane noise overhead. But given the evi­dence so far, she writes, “inten­tional ­self-­distrac­tion could well be pro­foundly detri­mental to individual and cul­tural well-being.” When people conduct business only in the “inter­stices of their ­mind-­wander­ing,” the world may gain informa­tion, but at the expense of ­wisdom.

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The Source: "The Myth of Multitasking" by Christine Rosen, in The New Atlantis, Spring 2008. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Magdalena Roseseler

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