Multitasking is a myth

May 22nd, 2009 by Demian Turner



Quite an interesting article from the New York Times in which the author, whose life priorities were brought sharply into focus after being diagnosed with cancer, describes how important it is to rid oneself of distractions like facebook, email, twitter, etc in order to start being effective:

Ms. Gallagher advocates meditation to increase your focus, but she says there are also simpler ways to put the lessons of attention researchers to use. Once she learned how hard it was for the brain to avoid paying attention to sounds, particularly other people’s voices, she began carrying ear plugs with her. When you’re trapped in a noisy subway car or a taxi with a TV that won’t turn off, she says you have to build your own “stimulus shelter.”

She recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption. (For more advice, go to

“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime.

“People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”

During her cancer treatment several years ago, Ms. Gallagher said, she managed to remain relatively cheerful by keeping in mind James’s mantra as well as a line from Milton: “The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.”

Multitasking photo by Les Chatfield

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2 Responses to “Multitasking is a myth”

  1. Chris Houghton says:

    Very interesting article. This advocates the use of the “Current initiative” slot as described by Mark Forster in his “Do It Tomorrow” book – which I have found to provide a very good complimentary approach to the GTD framework.

  2. Demian Turner says:

    I thought so too :-) Can you give more info on “Current initiative” – I don’t know this.

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