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The Multitasking Mess

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

A few weeks ago, I was driving down C-470 listening to NPR, mentally checking my Christmas list and chatting with a passenger when a Science Friday feature about multitasking riveted my attention. (Which is really saying something, given the circumstances.) While we’ve all heard that multitasking is bad for us, it continues to fall into that category populated by other epically heroic activities — like working long hours, drinking too much, driving too fast — that we oddly brag about.

Stanford professor Clifford Nass’s pioneering research into how humans interact with technology found that our increasingly screen-saturated, multitasking modern world is not nurturing the ability to concentrate, analyze or feel empathy. Perhaps more strikingly, Nass explained to NPR, today’s nonstop multitasking actually wastes more time than it saves. It’s a simple proposition, really. Multitasking is the act of simultaneously spreading your attention over multiple activities. And, as is the case with most substances, the further you stretch your attention, the thinner it becomes.

So, on the odd chance you might have a few moments to focus on a single task, this week’s Friday Five gives you five ways to think about multitasking. (But not simultaneously, okay?)

1. So you think you’ve got it mastered? Maybe you’ve been multitasking for years  — ever since the days you holed up in your bedroom doing ninth-grade math homework while the TV, stereo and video games ran at full blast and you chatted with friends more or less constantly. Practice makes perfect, you say? In this case, not so much. Researchers are nearly unanimous in showing that people who chronically multitask exhibit an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.

2. Aw, it’s not a big deal! Sure. “It’s a little like smoking,” Nass said. “‘I smoke all the time, so smoking can’t be bad for me.’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.” People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They may actually think they are more productive — or that they can turn everything off and call on a laser-focus whenever they wish. But they can’t. People develop habits of mind that make that impossible. As Nass said, “They are suckers for irrelevancy.” Sound familiar?

3. So what? I can stop when I want to. Maybe. Maybe not. But even if you can stop, there’s no good science on whether the brain will heal or even return to earlier, more focused habits. One reason the research is lacking is because it’s extremely difficult to get people to unplug themselves long enough to take part in studies showing whether their brains will begin to snap back to pre-multitasking effectiveness. Multitasking behavior — particularly involving “screens” — mimics chemical addiction in many ways. (But for some weirdly good news, there are interesting developments on the video game front.)

4. You’re not the only victim. If you think you are only harming yourself when you text-talk-view-play simultaneously, think again. A study conducted in a classroom setting last year revealed that public displays of multitasking — in particular, engaging in contextually inappropriate activities (reading email in a meeting, say) — may have consequences that extend beyond the multitasker because it distracts those around you as well. As the paper’s authors wrote: “Disrupting one’s own learning is an individual choice; harming the learning of other students in the class is disrespectful.” Stop for a moment and consider your clients, too. These people are paying you for the value of your time and thinking ability. If your brain is less than 100 percent focused on them, are they getting less for their money? Seems so.

5. Well, if you must multitask! While there are many reasons to stop multitasking, let’s assume you are going to keep at it. How can you mitigate some of the problems? Here are a few tips:

  • Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, studied the impact of frequent interruptions from email, phone calls and so forth. “Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task,” she says, advising that turning off your notifications and limiting reading and responding to email to several discrete 20-minute chunks of time during the day can really make a difference.
  • Learn more about the power and allure of “a beginner’s mind.”
  • If you’re going to be hard on it, you can at least give your brain the benefit of some good fitness-building calisthenics on a daily basis.
  • Let technology assist you. There are some great apps out there to make multitasking … er … more multiple.
  • Try “single-tasking” once in a while.

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is Partner/Catalyst at Attorney at Work, a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on Twitter @astintarlton.

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Categories: Attorney Work-Life Balance, Lawyer Productivity
Originally published January 10, 2014
Last updated September 21, 2021
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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