Can You Truly Multitask?

March 30, 2011 | By | Comments (0)

Last week I attended a conference with my 8-year-old son’s teacher. The meeting was everything I expected it to be: A rehash of my son’s academic potential combined with analysis of his inability to work to his full potential. His teacher told me point blank, “If he’s interested in the topic, he’ll apply himself. If not, he rushes through his work to get on to the next thing.”

Well, I thought, isn’t that what we all do?

The problem with being an 8-year-old boy is you don’t get to choose what to work on and when. You have to follow someone else’s schedule and rules, usually not your own. In thinking about my son, I started to analyze my own work habits and how I compensate for boredom by multitasking.


I watch TV while folding laundry. I listen to audiobooks on long drives in the car. I talk on the phone when cooking dinner or washing dishes. I choose to read email or Twitter feeds anytime I stumble upon a bit of writer’s block. And more often than I care to admit, I’ll move back and forth between two or more work projects rather than finishing one completely and then starting the next.

In my work, the ability to multitask is often touted as an enviable skill. At home, I see this as a huge advantage. I get stuff done whereas my husband can only do one task at a time. Last night I asked him to change two light bulbs in the kitchen ceiling as he was heading upstairs for bed. He looked at me like I had five heads. “I’m going to bed now,” he said. “I will do that tomorrow.”

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, humans can’t truly multitask, so we should all stop trying. Truth is our brain chooses which information to process as any given time. The article points out, for example, that when you listen to speech, your visual cortex becomes less active. So when you talk on the phone to a client and work on your computer at the same time, you literally hear less of what the client is saying.

The fix? To slow down and focus on one thing at a time and give it your full and undivided attention for as long as you can. Then move on to the next task. Good advice whether you’re 8 or 38.

Do you consider yourself an expert at multitasking?