The Myth of Multi-tasking

May 4, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Many blogs are neophilic, about stuff just posted that has to be seen, but the web is also an archive, and sometimes you stumble upon something of value from yesteryear. So I  just wanted to share my rediscovery of the following thoughtful Atlantic article by Christine Rosen from the Jurassic period of 2008 called ‘The Myth of Multi-tasking’.

It is about attention  which is a key thematic concern for RSA’s  Social Brain work, and the following highlights, which are direct quotations from the article, were particularly striking for me:

  • Advice from father to son: In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” To Chesterfield, singular focus was not merely a practical way to structure one’s time; it was a mark of intelligence. “This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”
  • Worse than marijunana? In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”
  • Infomania and partial attention: The psychologist who led the study called this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity…. we are “constantly scanning for opportunities and staying on top of contacts, events, and activities in an effort to miss nothing.”
  • The Key to Newton’s success: When we talk about multitasking, we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention, and, more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention. People who have achieved great things often credit for their success a finely honed skill for paying attention. When asked about his particular genius, Isaac Newton responded that if he had made any discoveries, it was “owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”
  • Cultural impact: When people do their work only in the “interstices of their mind-wandering,” with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.

To give some balance, it is worth considering a previous RSA blog on this subject which rightly questions the evidence base for such claims.

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