Multitasking: Magic and Sorcerer's Apprentice.

In the beginning, multitasking seems like the way to go. It’s very satisfying to have your email open, manage IM, take a call, and have your presentation you’re working on and a memo or document too, and — why not? — a spreadsheet open as well, working on your projections. Boy, am I getting a lot of things done. I love it. The magic of technology.

And then there’s the driving time. Years ago it was listening to the radio while driving, nice music or conversation (talk shows), pass the time, but pay attention to the road. That kind of multitasking never bothered me.  Then, through the magic of technology again, we get cellphones. These days it seems like a third of the drivers I see (it’s not illegal in Oregon) have one arm dedicated to holding the phone in their ear.

The New York Times, however, recently cited research that confirms what I (and the states of New York and California and I don’t know how many others) suspect: that I can’t drive as well when I’m on the phone. And neither can you. Here’s the reference: Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic:

Several research reports, both recently published and not yet published, provide evidence of the limits of multitasking. The findings, according to neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors, suggest that many people would be wise to curb their multitasking behavior when working in an office, studying or driving a car.

These experts have some basic advice. Check e-mail messages once an hour, at most. Listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration. But other distractions — most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, television shows — hamper performance. Driving while talking on a cellphone, even with a hands-free headset, is a bad idea.

I’m guilty. I confess. Have you been on the phone lately, talking to me, and I seemed not all there? I probably wasn’t all there, because I was also reacting to instant messenger, maybe reading email, maybe working on a presentation as well. And sometimes my cellphone rings too, while I’m on the office phone.

Is that insulting to you, the listener. Yes, actually, and I apologize.

I’ve done it while driving too. A couple of years ago I was waiting at a red light, dialed the phone, and instinctively let up on the brake exactly as I pressed the send button. Thankfully, I caught it in time, nothing happened but it scared me, reminded me that this is sort of crazy. I can walk and chew gum at the same time, yes; and I can drive and talk to you at the same time too, when you’re in the car with me. But can I drive and talk to you on the phone as well? Not sure.

I guess it’s not just coincidence that I’m starting to see people writing about how you need to do only one thing at a time as a tool for productivity. Read your emails just a couple times a day, and focus on one task at a time. Suddenly, or so it seems, doing just one thing at a time is, ironically, a way to be more productive.

Take, for example, this post by Tim Ferriss quoting at length JoshWaitzkin. Or perhaps this one, subtitled work simpler and saner, on Zen Habits. It’s enough to have us all give pause — except that we can’t, because we’re too busy.


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