Doing too many things at once may not be saving us any time, and could be harming our health
special to the star
In the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice to his son: "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, while "hurry, bustle, and agitation are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind."
In modern times, hurry, bustle, and agitation are so much a way of life that we have a word for it: multitasking.
Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible.
In recent years, however, challenges to the ethos of multitasking have begun to emerge.
Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cellphones and other electronic devices while driving.
In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise.
"Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers," a 2005 British study found.
Among the many scientific explorations of the phenomenon is the work of psychologist René Marois of Vanderbilt University, who used scans to track what happens when the brain is forced to respond to several stimuli at once. Marois found that task-switching leads to time lost as the brain determines which task to perform – bearing out Chesterton's point about efficiency or lack thereof.
And for teens who insist they can listen to music, watch TV, surf the Net and do their homework, all at the same time, psychology professor Russell Poldrack has bad news.
Poldrack, of the University of California, Los Angeles, did a study that found multitasking adversely affects learning. "Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily," he says.
His research demonstrates that when people are distracted, they use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information. Brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information.
"We have to be aware that there is a cost to the way that our society is changing, that humans are not built to work this way," Poldrack warned in a recent radio interview. "We're really built to focus. And when we sort of force ourselves to multitask, we're driving ourselves to perhaps be less efficient in the long run even though it sometimes feels like we're being more efficient."
As educational psychologist Jane Healy told the San Francisco Chronicle, "I think this generation of kids is guinea pigs." She worries they could grow into adults who engage in "very quick but very shallow thinking."
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 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."
William James, the great psychologist who wrote at length about the varieties of human attention, compared adults' stream of thought to a river – "easy simple flowing predominates in it, the drift of things is with the pull of gravity, and effortless attention is the rule."
In contrast, the youthful mind is characterized by an "extreme mobility of the attention" that "makes the child seem to belong less to himself than to every object which happens to catch his notice."
Like Chesterfield, James believed the transition from youthful distraction to mature attention was in large part the result of personal mastery and discipline – and so was illustrative of character.
"The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again," he wrote, "is the very root of judgment, character and will."
Today, our collective will to pay attention seems fairly weak. We require advice books to teach us how to avoid distraction. In the not-too-distant future, we may even need new gadgets to help us overcome the unintended attention deficits created by the gadgets that exist today.
Like the devices placed on engines so that people can't drive cars beyond a certain speed, there may be "time nannies" (as a New York Times writer speculated) to help us manage our multitasking. These technological governors would prompt us with reminders to set mental limits when we try to do too much, too quickly, all at once.
Then again, perhaps we will simply adjust. For the younger generation of multitaskers, after all, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life.
But given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown, this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being.
When people do their work only in what James called the "interstices of their mind-wandering," with crumbs of attention rationed out among many tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.