Queen of Multitasking?

Fold a basket of clothes, wipe a small child’s drippy nose, text your sister, with phone tucked into your shoulder so you can listen to a key conference call or your BFF’s tale of woe? Pay the bills as you watch your favorite show, chatting on Facebook with your college roomie? We women are expert multitaskers, priding ourselves on the dozens of balls we keep in the air, hours on end.  Most women I know (myself included) are heavily invested in this as the secret to our success: parallel tracks to accomplishment perfected through hours of practice. We know we can juggle more than the guys. One look at the toy-strewn family room and sticky kitchen counters after dad is left with two kids all day suggests his ability to multitask. And we certainly don’t want to enter that camp. No more multitasking would equal imminent “to do” list catastrophe, dropped balls ping-ponging all around us.

Recent research by psychologists at Stanford University is bursting this bubble of pride about the value of our multitasking skills. These researchers compared high tech jugglers, college students who email, text, research online, and IM while studying. The researchers looked at three tasks: filtering out irrelevant information, organizing data in memory, and switching between tasks. The psychologists were certain the heavy multitaskers would excel at some, if not all, of these skills.

They were dead wrong. The multitaskers failed abysmally at screening out information they didn’t need, their memories were overloaded, and the speed at switching gears was tortoise-esque compared to the students doing only one or two tasks at a time. The researchers concluded that heavy multitasking resulted in lesser accomplishment, in quality and quantity, over time.

Our brains are more like computers than we want to admit. If I’m running several internet windows, downloading photos from my camera to send to my mom while I edit a PDF document of the next book, not only does my brain drag, but my hard drive does too. Shut down a few programs and my computer resumes a speed that makes me sigh and harrumph less.

Why stress ourselves to instant, simultaneous accomplishment, when the juggling hinders the outcome? This is an excellent place to cut ourselves some slack and expect less. Let’s give singular attention to one task at a time. Or if we must stretch it–two. The facts are clear: increased efficiency will be the reward. By doing less, we just might accomplish more — quality and quantity. And we can take pride in that, rather than burning out our brains with information (or task) overload.

And I’m betting we’ll still get more done than those guys distracted by football.

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