Multi-tasking: Mission Impossible?

English: Baddeley's model of working memory in...

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Several months ago I was on the phone with my sister and got repeatedly distracted during the conversation. Although we customarily chat while doing a chore, she could tell  my attention was more divided than typically.  She paused and said, “You know, Carol, multi-tasking doesn’t work. It just makes you feel like you are accomplishing more when you try to do several things at once.”

I have thought about this often during December.  Regardless of the countless studies that scan the brain and provide evidence that humans can only perform tasks sequentially, as a mom during the holidays, I know better. Multi-tasking is a not a myth, it’s a must.

An often-cited Stanford study on multi-tasking was performed on university students. It measured their ability to filter irrelevant information, manage working memory and switch from one task to another. The study concluded that multi-taskers were worse than focused taskers at all of these. I was disappointed by the results and a bit skeptical.

The study’s conclusions were based on multi-media measurements using a sorting problem with blue and red triangles. I would like to see a practical study performed using a group of moms responding to real-life scenarios. In a narrow timeframe, require the subjects to make dinner while assisting with homework, paying bills, checking email and answering the question, “Where is my practice jersey?” Then the scientists will get my attention.

Other studies point out that the brain cannot fully focus when multi-tasking because it takes longer to complete an individual task and the amount of errors increase. This does resonate as I remember the day — before motherhood — when I could complete projects with ease.  Multi-tasking, however, or at least rapid-fire “tasking,” is a daily exercise for most moms. Our duties create the sensation of juggling live grenades with an undersized catcher’s mitt –  and that is just the scheduling part.

However, I did take note that perhaps I spend too much time talking to my kids while simultaneously trying to accomplish something else. It occurred to me that the real damage of multi-tasking may not be more errors and fewer completed tasks. It might mean that people I care about don’t think I am truly paying attention when I listen but don’t look them in the eye, a human demonstration of care and concern.

So, my one and only New Year’s resolution this year is to provide each family member completely focused, undivided attention daily. Then, I can spend the rest of the day defiantly demonstrating that I can indeed multi-task.

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Carol Lewis Gullstad, December 26, 2011

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