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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

Walking and Chewing Gum and Fouling Up Royally

The studies are in: Multi-taskers take longer and do things worse. So much for efficiency.

March 12, 2003|JOHN BALZAR

I knew it all along. Now science is catching up.

Excuse me a sec, the phone is ringing....

OK, sorry. We're talking about multi-tasking. This horrifying fad-cum-burden has been imposed on us by Alan Greenspan and the other slave drivers of the "we must be efficient to survive" movement. We've got to be able to do two things at once and do them well, and handle three or four other things on the side while we're at it. Not only is it our way of life, but our way of life depends on it.

I know better, and I suspect you do too.

Wait, it's the beeper. Let me see. Oh, never mind. It's a phone number I don't recognize. Forget it.

Where were we? Multi-tasking. Consider just Iraq. Mention that country in a conversation, you have to simultaneously worry about North Korea too. Then we cannot forget Iran's atomic energy program. And what about Afghanistan, which we promised not to forget? Depending on the day of the week, we might also add Colombia or the Philippines, and of course France and the U.N.

Anyway, all those bad things we suspected about multi-tasking have now been proved by scientists. New studies have calibrated that we lose precious moments every time we switch subjects. Worse, we get stupider along the way. And we end up working against ourselves....

The beeper again. Excuse me, I have to call back and tell these people that they're beeping the wrong fellow. I mean, what if it's surgery paging an anesthesiologist? They're probably multi-tasking. Pardon me for a moment....

Anyway, I could have told scientists as much. I don't quite understand all their psychological terminology about the brain's "executive control" processes -- our own personal electrochemical CEO that keeps the trains running upstairs. But I can attest to what experiments prove: A person who is yakking on the phone and trying to change lanes at the same time is a lousy driver, and I suspect a dull conversationalist too -- right up until you hear the background sounds of colliding metal, at which point the conversation gets quite interesting.

According to a report published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, people who multi-task are less efficient than those who tackle matters one thing at a time.

Oops, the phone again. It's a friend. He puts me on hold to take another call. So I put him on hold to call Joshua Rubinstein, a psychologist who co-authored the report for his PhD from the University of Michigan.

"Wait, before you ask me a question. Let me ask you: Do you know Excel?" Rubinstein begins.


"Oh, never mind. You'd know if you knew," he says.

Which is no doubt true. I hear clicking on a keyboard in the background. Hey, he's multi-tasking!

Yes, he's working through an Excel software problem on his computer and submitting to this interview. I wonder which is more painful.

"Go ahead," he says. Click, click, click.

Huh? Oh yeah. I ask him to sum up his research: "If you have two tasks that take 10 minutes each, and you do one and then the other, the work will require 20 minutes to complete. If you switch back and forth, it will take you 25 or 30 minutes, and you'll make more mistakes," he explains.

So why is he multi-tasking while we're doing an interview about the pitfalls of multi-tasking?

"I avoid dangerous situations.... Sometimes the potential loss is not so bad."

Apparently this man has not dealt with the press before.

"Hi," he says. But he is not speaking into the phone. Then he explains: "My boss just came by with his grandson."


"I've lost my train of thought," he says.

So have I. But it's been a pleasure. I seldom get to talk to a scientist with a sense of humor.

Meanwhile, I have a friend holding, I think. And the mail has arrived. And the little bell on my computer has sounded the arrival of e-mails. And there's another multi-tasking study to explore too.

Published in the journal NeuroImage, it says that people who try to hear a conversation while watching something else lose 53% of their listening capabilities. Look, here's an e-mail advising me that my e-mail server is down. Ever wonder about the people who send such messages?

Anyway, I could have told them as much. Ever tried to have a conversation with your spouse and hide the fact that your eyes have wandered to another wom ....

Phone again. My friend is calling to say he's sorry he had to put me on hold.

Wait, let me get my headset. I have to pRoofreAd this colUmn while we talk.

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