Monday, April 13, 2009

Multi-tasking or multi-ignoring?

By Steven T. Hunt

I’m not sure if it is true, but someone told me that the most dangerous group of drivers recently changed. It used to be teenage boys. Putting young men into overpowered cars is a good formula for creating accidents and high insurance premiums. But another group of drivers has become even more frightening behind the wheel than impulsive, testosterone-laden, inexperienced young males recreating Grand Theft Auto in the family sedan (when I was a teenager, we did the same thing, only we imitated James Garner driving his gold Camaro in the TV show “Rockford Files”).

So what is the new “most dangerous driver”?

Teenage girls, and in particular teenage girls driving while texting on cell phones. This confirms something most of us have known for a long time: driving while talking or texting on a cell phone is not a good idea. But the larger question is, if we all know how dangerous this is then why do so many people do it? I would argue that it is due in part to a mythical belief in our ability to “multi-task.”

If you remember one thing from this post, remember this:

When it comes to processing information, whether in the context of listening to someone, driving, reading, or any other task that involves some level of thinking and awareness, WE DO NOT MULTI-TASK, WE DIVIDE OUR ATTENTION!

There is a lot of psychological research that supports this. When you try to do more than one mental activity at a time, you do not actually pay attention to several things simultaneously in a literal sense. What you do is rapidly switch attention between tasks, doing one task for a short period of time before moving to the next task. This leads to a lot of wasted mental energy since every time you switch activities your brain has to re-orient to the new task. You end up paying less attention to every task and often do the tasks at much poorer levels than if you did each task by itself. Although people may perform at a high level on different tasks, this basic process of switching between tasks and the problems it creates applies to all people. Attempting to multi-task hurts task performance regardless of how good people may think they are at doing several things at once.

Despite popular beliefs about the “next generation” having the ability to text while talking on the phone while surfing the Web while driving, people are not getting better at multi-tasking. What people are getting better at is ignoring how poorly they are doing certain tasks while they focus their attention on something else. For example, the teenage girl on the cell phone may think she is driving well while texting her friend. But this is because she didn’t even notice running through the red light in the last intersection! If she put down the phone and actually paid attention to her driving then she might notice just how bad a job she is doing.

I frequently see the same thing in meetings. As soon as the meeting starts everyone opens up their laptops and starts answering e-mails while supposedly “multi-tasking” to the conversation. People wrongly assume that since they are in the room they are paying attention to what is being said in the meeting. In reality, they are totally unaware of many verbal and non-verbal cues that they would notice if they were fully listening to the person doing the talking. They participate in the meeting with a false sense of comfort that they are hearing what is being said, when in reality they are only hearing a small portion of the conversation.

Next time you are talking to someone and have the urge to check your e-mail, remember that teenage girl happily texting her friend while driving through a stop light. This could be you. There is no such thing as multi-tasking, there is only choosing not to pay full attention to what you are doing. Now excuse me while I get back to the conference call I’ve been participating in while writing this blog.

Steven T. Hunt, Ph.D., SPHR is Director of Business Transformation for SuccessFactors Inc. Dr. Hunt is an industrial-organizational psychologist with over 15 years of talent management experience assisting companies in leveraging systematic tools and technologies to assess, develop, manage, and retain talent. He is author of multiple articles as well as the book “Hiring Success” (Pfeiffer, June 2007) which provides guidance on the use of workforce assessment and staffing selection tools.


1 comment:

Katrina said...

Love this post - great insight. I must admit, there have been situations (recently) where I thought I was doing great at multi-tasking but it came off as multi-ignoring. Sorry, Love!