Over the last several weeks the topic of multitasking has come up multiple times for me in discussions, articles, and television shows. Everyone seems to be talking about the implications and effects of trying to do several things at one time – and the impact of technology on this issue. Most experts and opinion-makers on the subject lament the destructive, stress-inducing effects of multitasking. They cite studies that show how productivity is negatively impacted by trying to complete a task while reading email and participating in a conference call.

Last week I listened to a fascinating podcast from Harvard Business Review featuring an interview with Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor who authored the book, “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.” Davidson presents an alternative argument that supports multitasking as a way to keep the brain active and engaged. She describes a phenomenon known as Attention Blindness where we can become so focused on an individual task that we become blinded to other important variables in our midst. Some of you may be familiar with the Invisible Gorilla video used in many training programs where participants become so focused on a specific aspect of a video that they completely miss the guy in the gorilla suit appearing in the video. Similarly Davidson describes pilot training in which pilots in training become so focused on a difficult simulator descent with hazardous weather conditions and tricky navigation that they completely miss the airliner parked across their landing path. It’s not something they expected or planned for, so they literally do not see it.

Davidson argues that task disruption and diverting focus can be useful and help us to see things that may be right in front of us. She sees multitasking as an opportunity to bring to our attention not only what we see, but what we don’t see. Here are a few of the points that she makes that resonated with me:

  • Working collaboratively can negate attention blindness by bringing many perspectives and attention points into the room.
  • Eighty percent of the brain’s energy is not spent on multitasking but on talking to ourselves. Brain switching, or multitasking, uses only five percent of the brain’s energy.
  • When you are not focused on one thing, your brain is very active.
  • Little breaks can be refreshers for your brain.
  • What you need to complete a task depends on the individual. For example, some people need periodic zone-out time to help them regroup and be most productive. Find what you need and then schedule that in to your day.
  • While you may think that shutting your door helps you to focus and get work done, your computer brings the outside in. Technology has changed the way we work. It is a tool to be used for better or worse. Making conscious choices about how we use technology is the most effective approach to being most productive.
  • Boredom is much more destructive and distracting than multitasking.

This is a great perspective on the power of our brains and the benefits of keeping it active. However, the big caveat here is that while multitasking or brain switching can be beneficial and effective when we are engaged in individual work, it is absolutely taboo when we are interacting with others. Whether our brain can support and manage a face-to-face dialogue and a texting conversation at the same time is irrelevant. What IS critical is that the relationship we have with the other person cannot be appropriately supported and nurtured when we are splitting our attention between him or her and other tasks. When it comes to human interaction, our undivided attention is still the best approach.

What is your perspective on the plusses or minuses of multitasking? We’d love to hear your comments.

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