Multitasking is an Urban Legend

“One frustrated psychologist has argued that the case for multitasking is on a par with ‘urban legend’; that is, it’s a story we like the sound of but that is really nonsense.
– Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril

So, here’s the problem. We think we can do two things at once.

We can’t.

I have written through the years that when we read something in one place, it is worth paying some attention to. But when we read it time and again, maybe there really is something to it.

Well, it is now being written about seemingly everywhere, so pay attention to this!

You cannot do two things at once.

As Margaret Heffernan builds her case about how we simply do not see some pretty important stuff that we should see, one problem she describes is that we only see what we are focused on. “We just do not have enough mental capacity to do all the things that we think we can do.” No, we don’t.

In one chapter of her book, she writes a lot about the famous “Can you Count the Passes?” video. You know, the one where you are intent on counting the passes of a basketball, and you miss the person in a gorilla suit walking through the scene. You are focused on one thing; you miss the other thing, even though it is quite prominent.

Why? Because we do not see much of anything when our focus is on something else. This is true for TSA agents at the airport; this is true for drivers texting on their cell phones (You either focus on your phone or on the road. You can’t focus on both!).

And, it has interesting business implications. If you focus on doing your current task well–and you should–then you can’t focus on what task to do next. You either focus on what to do now, or you focus on what to do next.

One focus at a time.

That’s all you can do. You really can have only one focus at a time.

So, what are you focusing on?

(And by the way, here is Ms. Heffernan’s point: if you focus on one aspect of anything, you miss the other aspects. That leads to blindness–blindness that leads to big, big problems.)

Randy Mayeux


Contributed by:
Randy Mayeux
Professional Speaker & Writer
Co-founder, First Friday Book Synopsis

7 responses

  1. I remember back in May I went to a seminar and they showed the count the passes seminar. Now I consider myself as a very observant person. Not only did I miss the gorilla suit, I did not even get the number of passes correct. It’s a good thing they served humble pie for dessert!

    Maybe there is something to that “stop and smell the roses.” We may do things so fast that it seems like we are multi-tasking. Some times we just have to slow down and do it right the first time.

    Thanks for putting this in such a digestible perspective.

    1. And thanks for your input, Charles. I think we’ve all been duped by that video. HA!

  2. […] Because we do not see much of anything when our focus is on something else. For the original version including any supplementary images or video, visit https://the16percent.wordpress.com/2014/08/05/multitasking-is-an-urban-legend/ […]

  3. I always liked that question in an interview, “Can you multitask?” I like the interviewers response when I tell them NO, I don’t multitask. I usually respond, after a short period so they can catch up, “but I can manage multiple project simultaneously.” People who brag about multitasking, don’t know what multitasking really is, it’s as obscure as multi-threaded.

    1. Way to shake up the interviewers, John! Great response.

  4. Really? Ask a 911 dispatcher if he/she multitasks….

    1. There’s no question that a dispatcher has a lot on his/her plate during each call. However, no one can fully focus on multiple things at time. Either the focus is on talking to the caller and taking notes, or dispatching EMS/police to the scene, etc.

      You can do multiple things at once, but you can’t do multiple things WELL at once. The task you’re not focused on is the one that you’re not doing to the best of your ability.

      Thanks for your comment, Sandra!

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