Arianna Huffington / Politics

In Praise of Unitasking

It wasn't much of a surprise when news came that one of the air-traffic controllers handling the small airplane that tragically crashed into a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson was chatting on the phone even while giving instructions to the pilot.

It's unclear how much, if at all, this contributed to the deadly collision, but it's definitely clear that multitasking ain't all it's cracked up to be.

This is why I am speaking out in praise of unitasking.

The fact that technology and the information age are taking us into a world that we're simply not wired for is being increasingly confirmed by scientists and researchers who study how we process information.

Think you're able to competently do two things at once? Like read this post while talking on the phone or IM'ing a colleague? Well, think again -- actually, don't think again now -- that would be more multitasking. Wait until you're done reading and then think again.

Study after study has shown the same thing: we think we're doing two things at once, when, really, we're doing only one and just switching back and forth -- with a huge efficiency loss in the process.

"Multitasking," Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of "CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap!" told the New York Times last year, "gives the illusion that we're simultaneously tasking, but we're really not. It's like playing tennis with three balls."

Studies of young adults doing math and geometry problems by University of Michigan psychology professor David Meyer showed that the tasks took longer when participants had to switch back and forth.

What does this mean in the workplace? One recent study of workers at Microsoft found that it took them an average of 15 minutes to get their focus back after multitasking with a bit of e-mail or IM'ing. Another study, from the University of California, Irvine, found that workers were interrupted and switched what they were doing roughly every 11 minutes. Even worse, every time that happened it took fully 25 minutes to get back to the original task.

Of course, outside the office, the consequences can be much worse than just lost time. A study released last month by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that texting while driving increased the chances of a crash by 23 times.


(c) 2008 Arianna Huffington. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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