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We're all multi-tasking, but what's the cost?

We're just not wired to do so much at once, as stress and mistakes show.

July 19, 2004|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer

Executives revel in it. Parents with jobs and children rely on it. And circus jugglers make it art.

Multi-tasking, for most Americans, has become a way of life. Doing many things at once is the way we manage demands bearing down on us at warp speed, tame a plague of helpful technological devices and play enough roles -- parent, coach, social secretary, executive -- to stage a Broadway show.

But researchers peering into the brains of those engaged in several tasks at once are concluding what some overworked Americans had begun to suspect: that multi-tasking, which many have embraced as the key to success, is instead a formula for shoddy work, mismanaged time, rote solutions, stress and forgetfulness. Not to mention car crashes, kitchen fires, forgotten children, near misses in the skies and other dangers of inattention.

So turn off the music, hang up the phone, pull over to the side of the road and take note: When it comes to using your brain to conduct several tasks at one time, "there is no free lunch," says University of Michigan psychologist David E. Meyer. For all but the most routine tasks -- and few mental undertakings are truly routine -- it will take more time for the brain to switch among tasks than it would have to complete one and then turn to the other.

When the two get squished together, each will be shortchanged, resulting in errors.

And a prolonged jag of extreme multi-tasking, warns Meyer, may lead to a shorter attention span, poorer judgment and impaired memory. A Clint Eastwood fan and admitted poor multi-tasker, Meyer likes to quote Dirty Harry, confronting his nemesis on a pier in one climactic scene: " 'A man's got to know his limitations,' " Meyer says, adding, "and that's basically the deal with multi-tasking. If you try to go beyond them, you just screw yourself up royally."

The term multi-tasking comes from the world of computers, where single-minded engineers could devise systems flexible enough to perform several tasks at once. But the proliferation of computers and their spinoffs -- mobile communications devices and hand-held gadgets -- have made it necessary for their human users to multi-task as well.

For George Parsons, the founder and chief executive of Secorix Inc. in San Mateo, two desktop computers, a cellphone, a wireless computer device and an electronic pocket organizer pump out a vast and endless stream of demands, choices and information. A practitioner of Transcendental Meditation and a firm believer in frequent visits to the gym, Parsons says he heads off meltdown by quieting his mind and escaping his gadgets several times a week. But sometimes, he says, his wife will call as he teeters on the edge of overload, and he'll snap, hanging up on her with a brusque "can't-deal-with-this-right-now!" dismissal.

That's when flowers are called for, he says.

In recent months, the public debate over multi-tasking has focused largely on cellphones and driving. On July 1, New Jersey became the second state -- behind New York -- to ban drivers from using a cellphone without a headset. Washington, D.C., has adopted a similar ban.

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Weighing the costs

Meanwhile, in workplaces across the country, multi-tasking and its potential costs have become a prime concern for insurance underwriters, management consultants, efficiency engineers and cognitive scientists. In addition to contributing to communications lapses, rudeness and employee stress, multi-tasking is considered a factor in more serious workplace mishaps -- from medication and treatment errors in hospitals to near misses in the skies. Indeed, the Federal Aviation Administration has underwritten several studies to explore how air-traffic controllers, the multi-tasking virtuosos who orchestrate the nation's air traffic, do what they do -- and where their skills may break down.

The epidemic of multi-tasking even is sending patients to doctors and therapists with complaints of depression, anxiety, forgetfulness and attention deficit disorder. Mostly, says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell of Sudbury, Mass., they have a "severe case of modern life." But their distress is very real, and their organizations are suffering too, he adds.

"The more constant phenomenon is simply impaired performance and a workplace that becomes toxic in a hurry," he says. "They may be meeting their numbers, but they're not as creative, flexible, humorous or innovative as they might be."

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