Multitasking is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. But it’s important to understand what it is and why it doesn’t work. Multitasking is when we juggle multiple things (thoughts and actions) at the same time. For example, people multitask when they drive and talk on their cell phones (Donatelle, 2009). It may surprise you to hear, however, that people who multitask are actually less productive than those who just concentrate on one project a time.
A recent Harvard Business Review post says that multitasking leads to as much as a 40% drop in productivity, increased stress, and a 10% drop in IQ (Bergman, 2010).
Need more proof? Perhaps no other example better illustrates why multitasking doesn’t work than distracted driving. Studies have found that driving while distracted (being on the phone or texting) is actually more dangerous than driving drunk.
Here are some eye-opening statistics:
- 20 percent of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving (NHTSA).
- 18% of injury crashes in 2010 were reported as distraction-affected crashes (Distraction.Gov).
- Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent (University of Utah).
- Sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent-at 55 mph-of driving the length of an entire football field, blind (Distraction.Gov).
The September 2010 Harvard Mental Health Letter (a Harvard Health Publication) cited a study to explain why talking on the phone while driving is more distracting than talking to a fellow passenger in the same car. Researchers found those who talked on the cell phone were more likely to drift into the other lane and more likely to miss an exit. Further analyzing conversations, researchers discovered that drivers and passengers in the car tended to adjust their conversations in response to traffic cues. For instance, they both stopped talking if there was a traffic problem or the passenger would give advice to help the driver navigate. On the flip side, conversations on cell phones didn’t vary based on traffic conditions because, obviously, only the driver can see the road.
Finally, for those who still argue that they’re great at multitasking, research indicates that even though we think we’re “multitasking” it’s actually our brain rapidly switching from one task to another, rather than processing them simultaneously. People who seem to be good at multitasking are simply good at being faster at switching back and forth between two things (Scientific American, 2009).
- People who multitask are less productive/efficient than those who simply concentrate on one project a time.
- We don’t actually “multitask” because your brain switches rapidly between handling one task and then another.
- Simplify your life and your tasks. Do fewer things — better.
Bergman, P. (2010, May 20). How (and why) to stop multitasking. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from http://hbr.org
Distraction.Gov – What is Distracted Driving
Donatelle, R. (2009). Health: The basics (8th ed.). San Francisco: Pearson Benjamin Cummings.
Harvard Mental Health Letter. (September 2010). In Brief: The Quirky Brain: Why cell phone conversations distract drivers. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2010/September/why-cell-phone-conversations-distract-drivers
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – Traffic Safety Facts Research Note
Distracted Driving 2009
Scientific American. (2009, July). The Myth of Multitasking. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=the-myth-of-multitasking-09-07-15
University of Utah – Cell Phone Users Drive “Blind”
University of Utah – Drivers on Cell Phones Are As Bad As Drunks