The attraction of distraction, or The Myth of the Multitasker

Posted 1/31/19

I’m not sure what compelled my high school history teacher to say what she did to our entire class nearly four decades ago, but I’ve never forgotten it.

Now I’m trying to erase it from my …

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The attraction of distraction, or The Myth of the Multitasker

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I’m not sure what compelled my high school history teacher to say what she did to our entire class nearly four decades ago, but I’ve never forgotten it.

Now I’m trying to erase it from my mind.

We’d been assigned to write a paper for the class. A day or so after they were turned in and graded, Mrs. Alice King, my small Kansas high school’s legendary former instructor, stood in front of us with a frown and proceded to scold us collectively for the horrible job we did. The papers were awful, I remember her saying, and because of that the entire class would have to re-do the assignment, to re-write the papers.

All except for me.

To my shock, Mrs. King singled out my paper, saying mine was the very example of what she was looking for when she gave the assignment. She then paused and asked the class: “What do you see Bill doing a lot of the time?”

Stone silence from my classmates. And embarrassment on my part as my heart seized up. I stared down at my desk, pencil in hand, drawing cartoon figures in my notebook.

“Besides doodling,” she said.

The apparent secret to my great paper, she said, was how much time I spent reading. Mrs. King spoke about how often she’d see me with my nose in a book. I would be reading and doodling, even during her lectures. I had the ability to pay attention in class, she reasoned, even when I was drawing in the margin of my notebook, because I read so much. And reading – even during class – had to be the key to the quality of my paper.

It was at this point that Mrs. King declared: “Bill is the only person in this class who has my permission to do more than one thing at a time.”

So there you have it: I have a hall pass to mutlitask.

What I didn’t realize then was that my reading (usually golf magazines hidden inside textbooks, or a Stephen King novel) and my doodling were boredom relievers, distractions from having to focus on a class lecture. I could do that and still get good grades. For years afterward I thought of myself as a skilled multitasker. I had permission, right? But I’ve learned as I’ve grown older that I’m not that talented, but rather just easily distracted. In adulthood, that distractability makes it natural to try to juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. I’ve noticed it in others, too. We pat ourselves on the back for being so busy, for doing so many things at once.

But are we more effective?

For the multitasker, apparently, effectiveness is an impossibility.

The average American with a smartphone picks up the device 160 times a day. The dopamine addiction we get from a new email message, a “like” on a Facebook post or a text from a friend is powerful – so powerful that we’ll be on the lookout for those things even as we’re engaged in another task, or other tasks, including driving, sitting in a meeting or a movie or talking on the phone or to a friend.

I was struck by this powerful lure a few years ago. I spent a few days in Austin, the capital of Texas, at an international “mobile summit” for newspapers. One of the themes of the conference was the growing use of smartphones as tools for news consumption. Because there were a lot of tekkies and Twitter users at the conference, there was a whole lotta tweetin’ going on. It was fascinating for me to observe people watching presentations and tweeting about them at the same time. One speaker even live-tweeted as she presented. Then I realized my people-watching was a symptom of my own distractedness.

Studies have shown the brain can’t fully focus on more than one task, so multitaskers are prone to error as the brain continually re-starts and re-focuses. Multitaskers suffer from memory problems, and research reveals that the more likely you are to consider yourself good at multitasking, the worse you are at it. Multitasking lowers your IQ and even changes your personality. A study at the University of Sussex used MRI brain scans to show that density in the area of the brain responsible for empathy and cognitive and emotional control is actually impaired among high multitaskers.

We think we’re getting away with it, but clearly we’re not.

And contrary to Mrs. King’s claims, I’m not the exception.

I’ve used the “I have Mrs. King’s permission to do two things at once” line on my wife Lee Ann so often that she rolls her eyes when the words start coming out of my mouth. She knows me too well, and knows the truth.

My multitasking pass has expired.

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