“Can you Walk, Talk, and Chew Gum?”: The Myth of Multitasking

I can’t multitask!  I’ll be the first to admit it.  I have resigned myself to the fact my brain can only focus on one activity at a time.  There should be a thought bubble over my head that reads “occupied” or “unoccupied” so people know when it is safe to begin speaking to me about a new topic.

People walk up to me at work and just stand in front of my desk while I’m typing.  When I look up they say, “I’ll wait until you finish what you are doing.”  History has taught them it is the only way to have my complete attention.

One of my most embarrassing moments, and mind you there are many, came while I was trying to multitask at work.  I was reading an email when the phone rang.  I was focusing so much on reading the email that I answered the phone, “O’Connor Mortuary, this is Lori, how may I love you?”  Yep, that happened!

Fortunately I knew the person on the other end and we both got a good laugh out of it.  You better believe I turned every shade of red imaginable when those words first came out!  I vowed then I would focus on one task at a time.

I was discussing my limited ability with one of my coworkers who told me that multitasking is actually a myth.  I thought he was being polite but he insisted that he had attended a seminar where he learned that the mind only truly concentrates on one thing at a time.  When you divide your attention it produces mediocre results.

Multitasking is defined as engaging in multiple tasks at the same time, but what I learned is it is only possible under two conditions:

  • The first condition is that one of the tasks is automatic and does not require focus.  So in fact I am multitasking when I walk my dogs and talk on the phone.  Walking does not require thought.  Eating is another good example of an activity we can do automatically.
  • The second condition would be tasks that involve different types of brain processing.  An example of this would be reading while listening to music.  If the music is instrumental you will be able to retain what you have read.  But if the music has lyrics, reading comprehension declines due to both activities activating the language center of the brain.

What image does multitasking conjure up for you?  I see a busy executive talking on the phone, typing an email and nodding to her assistant while tossing back coffee.  Boy, if only I could work like that.  I would get things done so much faster.

Here’s the catch.  While it may appear they are doing it all, looks can be deceiving.

It turns out multitasking is actually counterproductive and in some cases unhealthy for the following reasons.

Reduces Productivity- You in fact are more productive when you begin one project and see it all of the way through whenever possible.  Interruptions ruin your train of thought.  All of the stops and starts end up wasting time and make you less efficient.

Leads to More Mistakes- Multitasking is a good way to get work completed quickly, but not always accurately.  Studies show that individuals who multitask make up to 50% more mistakes and suffer a 10-point fall in their IQ.

Creates Health Problems- The most obvious concern is stress, which can lead to high blood pressure and ultimately more serious problems. Stress also leads to poor eating habits, which can lead to weight gain and other health concerns.  Multitasking can also affect your brain and lead to short-term memory loss.

So next time you have a mountain of work piled in front of you, heed the advice found in Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare,” – “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Share an example of your multitasking experiences.

Do you also have embarrassing moments to share?

Have you suffered health issues from trying to “do it all”?

Lori

About Lori

I was born in Long Beach, raised in Cypress and ventured to South Orange County in 1999. I'm a member of Saddleback Church and through volunteering in the Memorial Ministry I was introduced to Neil O'Connor. Neil decided to bring me on board even despite my endless badgering at our first meeting. I am the Director of Care Coordination and also fill the roles of Memorial Marker Design Specialist, Weekend Receptionist and Blog Team Member. Never did I expect a mortuary would be the place I would find my dream job. I feel extremely blessed by the relationships I have formed at O'Connor with the team and the families we are privileged to serve. I now live in Aliso Viejo with my beloved pups Max and Bella. Free time, though often hard to come by, is mostly spent with friends. The Bible verse I live by - I can do everything through him who gives me strength Philippians 4:13
This entry was posted in Self-Help and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Judy Munoz

    While I guess I can understand the slow and steady winning the race. . .it won’t win the race in my job. I have to multi-task every day. . I am an administrative specialist and support everyone at the power plant I work at. From answering all phones, letting people in/out front security gates, accounts payable, travel agent, expense reporting, spreadsheet, template making, meeting/party planner extraordnaire. . there really isn’t a choice. It would hold true in my “mom” world too, two boys both playing sports, involved in church groups, volunteering when I can, but in the same breath I THRIVE on it. . it is who I am and what I do, for others it would be overwhelming and some days it is. I love the fact that you answered the phone “how may i love you”, that was classic Lori! Thanks for another great read!

    • Lori Bristol

      Thanks Judy!
      If anyone can successfully multi-task, it’s you!
      You have been doing it all for as long as you were old enough to work.
      Thank you for commenting on the post.

      Love you!
      Lori

  • Patricia Kolstad

    Lori:
    You hit the nail right on the head!
    When I took the Franklin Covey class several years ago, I realized that I can only succeed at one thing at a time. So I started using the Covey Planner and organizing my day with big rocks and little rocks. This concept, as wonderful as it is, is only as good as we choose to use it. When our days are broken up with interruptions, phone calls, or “can you do this now”, we end up multi-tasking without really knowing it or even wanting to. Our tasks multiply as quickly as we breathe in and out. I always thought that if you put me in a room with no phone, closed the door, locked it, and let me be, I could crank out enough work for 3 people. The only place I know that that might work is in a “think tank”. Even as I write this reply, I’m making a list of things that I need to accomplish today…. finish Mail Chimp conversion, send Cheryl her birthday card, call the LW Village Service center about the leak under my sink, follow up on an email invitation I sent yesterday, etc, etc, Crazy huh? We need to find a balance within our daily tasks. If everything we do becomes multi-tasking – with no balance, as Stephen Covey would say . . “To a hammer, everything is a nail.” We need to step back, re-evaluate and prioritize.

    Thanks for the great reminder.
    Pat

    • Lori Bristol

      My Dear MP,

      While slow and steady would be the preferred method, our jobs do require jumping back and forth. That is just the reality of it.
      As for your thought of being placed in a room all by yourself, I get that two hours a week.
      Since I have adjusted my schedule on Monday and Wednesday to work 9-6 and have dedicated marker hours, I have the Admin office all to myself. I get more done in that one hour than I do in half a day with the phones ringing.

      Thank you for commenting.

      Love you!
      Lori

  • Lori,

    Bingo! I am typing while thinking! This is all I can do at one time. Great perspective on the “myth” of multi-tasking superiority. You are an angel. CI

    • Lori Bristol

      Chris,
      Thank you so much for agreeing with me! Very few people do. 🙂
      As far as the angel part, you know I’m growing my hair out to cover my horns, right?

      You are the best!!!

      Lori

  • Betty F

    Well Lori, the word focus come to mind. You are the one that always reminds me to focus, as I tend to go in many different directions at one time. My daughter tells me I am multi-tasking but not doing it well. I have come to believe that. However, I have always had many irons in the fire at one time. But, seriously, I have found that when I have many things to get done at work, I do have to concentrate on one thing at a time.
    Betty F

    • Lori Bristol

      My Wonderful Betty,

      Did you see me putting my hand up to my nose and eyes while I was telling you to focus?
      I love you so much and sometimes you have no choice but to multitask. It’s the same for all of us.
      I am glad you agree the preferred method is one thing at a time so we can fully focus.

      Love you so much!!!
      Lori

  • Amy

    Being that I very much a multitasker this was an eye opener. I have always felt that the more I do the more I accomplished. Now I am questioning that reasoning. It makes perfect sense that you can only do one thing at a time if you want it done right and correctly. I am definitely going to have rethink how I plan my day and complete my tasks. What a great topic to write on. I appreciate your research on the counterproductivity and in some cases it being unhealthy. This is super important to me being I do have some health concerns. Thanks for your blog very good information. We can only do one thing at a time.
    Amy

    • Lori Bristol

      Amy,

      Much like Judy, you are one of those people who made me question if multitasking is actually a myth because you seem to do it with ease.
      I admire people who can do it all and do it quickly.
      Me not being able to do it is what made me research the topic. I was surprised to find so much information listing the cons of multitasking.
      In our jobs we really do not have a choice with many interruptions throughout the day.
      When possible though I try to focus on one thing at a time.

      I’m glad you found the post informative!
      Lori

  • Karilyn Leslie

    Lori,
    I have to jump on the Judy train. I have prided myself on being “flexible” able to jump from one task to the next smoothly without complaint, or a drop in productivity. I have always gravitated to those types of jobs, because I do transition well. As a result in my education, I chose healthcare, which is one giant multitask, with lives on the line. I got my EMT and worked in the field for awhile before moving on to an Emergency Room in Long Beach, where you never had a moment alone, or without some sort of interruption. What we do now at O’Connor’s is very similar. Phones, doctors, theCoroner, Public Entities, directors, owners, families, all challenging and pulling us in different directions. I love it!! I must admit though, that my greatest crowning glory would be motherhood. Not only did I have have 3 children of my own, but willingly accepted 3 additional kiddos when I married my wonderful husband, and then added 1 more. I married a fireman, and I believe I have a true FIREHOUSE mentality. Moving and grooving from one task to the next putting out fires and saving lives along the way!! LOL! Bottom line, God created us all with wondrous variety. If he hadn’t, who would be the one to sit behind the desk at a library, and who would talk the jumper down from the ledge? I say follow your passion, find what brings you joy, and jump in with both feet. If you find yourself in a position that isn’t the perfect fit, abide for a time, learn something new, and continue on your quest for JOY!!

    Thankful for you!
    Lucy

    • Lori Bristol

      Kari,

      Thank you for sharing your story.
      I envy you being able to smoothly transition from task to task. I know the stops and starts throw my timing off.
      Now the flexibility part I have had no choice but to learn due to the nature of our business.

      Yes, aren’t we blessed that God has created us all differently and taught us to be tolerant of those differences?

      Great advice too about continuing on one’s quest for joy! Too many people spend a lifetime in positions they are not passionate about or that rob them of the joy in their heart.

      Thankful for you too!!!
      Ethel

  • So true…multi-tasking doesn’t work.

    Focus, focus, focus!

    Great post Lori!

    • Lori Bristol

      Joey,

      I am so glad this resonated with you!

      Thank you for our comments.

      I am enjoying your blog as well!

      Lori

  • Lori,
    What a great bit of truth! I daily struggle with too many screens open on my computer and my mind darting back & forth between them – it’s never helpful or smooth, it’s just crazy-making. I’m grateful for the refresher this post is to get back to the basics of just focusing. It’s a habit that’s out of practice – even just in trying to write this post to you I’ve downloaded a photo for the next blog, sent a couple emails and helped load toner in the printer – see what I mean? Crazy-making.
    Thanks for putting together such a relevant topic and for giving me REASONS to not multitask instead of just telling me not too. Great post!

    • Lori Bristol

      Molly,

      I am so glad you enjoyed reading the post.
      As I read your comments above it reminds me of my days at the office. We are in an environment where there is constant stimulation through personal or phone contact. There can be so much coming at us at one time that our wheels are always turning. We are writing andemail, but thinking did I load paper in the printer? It is difficult to shut our minds down and not be thinking of “What’s Next?”.
      “Crazy-making” That is a perfect description.

      Thanks again for reading and appreciating this post!

  • Anne Collins

    I think I used to multitask actually. Not anymore. I don’t think anyone TRULY does, except in the relatively brainless activities you mentioned. I do know that I have constant interruptions in my day and I need to allow them to occur to keep everyone’s ball in the air as much as possible. I am aware that I take longer to get my own train of thought back. So something I should be able to do in an hour can take much longer with the interruptions. I have learned to be more kind to myself, realizing that even though my ball dropped so to speak, the composite ball universe stays afloat, due in part to my willingness to stop and add a bounce. That’s like a mom stirring a pot so it won’t burn while helping mend a child’s broken heart verbally, and moving the dog out of the kitchen with one foot, noticing the clock for timing on getting the other kid to practice with a full stomach. I guess that is multi-tasking. My husband thinks I try to all the time.
    Thanks for a good subject. I love our blogs!

    • Lori Bristol

      Anne,

      I love the reassurance you gave above that even though we feel like we dropped a ball on our end, we kept another one in the air. I just had a situation this morning where it popped in my head that I forgot to do something on one of my cases before I left. I am sure I was interrupted and helped keep another ball in the air. It is important not to beat ourselves up when we can’t make it all happen.

      I also love the description of what all of you moms have or are going through while taking care of your families. This scene reminds me of what goes on at Kari’s house as well.

      I love our blogs too and I love being on the team with you!!!

  • Jeff

    Lori,

    You must work with a very wise person whoever it is. Thanks for writing this and stating so well the pitfalls of divided attention. Mediocrity is hard enough to battle on its own and becomes an insurmountable obstacle when we buy into the false narratives like the myth of multitasking.

    The overwhelmed, stressed out, unhappy, “stretched like butter over too much bread” person has at times been me. Much of that pressure has been self induced by telling myself things like, “My boss expects me to be able to do all of this, so I’d better do it.” or “So and so seems to be able to juggle all of these things and more so I just need to try harder.” Comparison steels joy and we are who we are, not ‘so and so’. We have limitations, some of which can me improved upon but in the end, we can only do so much. Striving for excellence means saying “no” when need be and that is hard for those of us who desire to please others in unrealistic ways.

    I love this. Thanks for writing it. I will endeavor to resist the myth.

    Jeff

    • Lori Bristol

      Yes, he is so wise that he posted his comment twice! 😉

      • Jeff Turner

        It disappeared the first time….. I had to rewrite it. Oh brother! I hope I didn’t contradict myself.

        Dufus

  • Jeff Turner

    Lori,

    You must work with a really wise person whoever it is. The distracted, stressed, overwhelmed, “like butter scraped over to much bread” person has been me at times. Somehow thinking that I can do this task too and wanting to accommodate and please others to a fault sometimes and even thinking things like, “My boss wants me to do this so he must think I can”. Not wanting to speak up about the unrealistic load because I do not want to disappoint them. Then there is the demon of comparison. You know what I’m talking about. The old “So and so is able to do this and they even do it faster so I have to be as good as them if not better.” No better recipe for loosing joy.

    Excellence has never come from the mind enveloped in the tyranny of the urgent, yet our culture accepts the myth of this false narrative of multitasking without question.

    Thanks for writing this Lori and for stating in clearly and succinctly. I will endeavor to remove this mythical expectation from my daily life. I will reject it outright and pursue excellence instead.

    Well said and well done,

    Jeff

    • Lori Bristol

      Jeff,

      What you describe above is how I used to think to a tee. I’m a pleaser so I wanted to try to say “yes” to everything so I did not feel like I was letting my bosses down. Worse than that they might not think I was up to the job.

      I have also fallen victim to the comparison demon. If you allow it to, it can really do a number on your self worth. Realizing that God made you differently which also means working at a differenct pace is vital for a healthy outlook.

      I am glad you enjoyed the post and found it helpful.

      Thank you!
      Lori

    • Lori Bristol

      Oh and wise may be one too far!! Lol!

  • Carrie Bayer

    Lori, it’s all crystal clear now! Thank you so much for explaining the multi-tasking myth, I thought it was just me being an idiot when doing too many things all at once & having them blow up in my face. I have has a few embarrassing moments while trying to do too many things at once. Ride my bike & drink a sip of water- I crashed. Do dishes & talk on the phone- I dropped the phone in the water. Take a call while working on a different family’s file- called the person I was speaking with by the wrong name.

    While embarrassing, all these examples taught me to stop doing one thing before picking up with another. I’m truly clumsy while trying to physically multi-task. I’m completely awkward when trying to verbally or mentally multi-task. In either situation, the end result is the same- a mess that takes longer to clean up than if I had just slowed down in the beginning.

    Thank you so much for showing me that I’m not crazy! XOXOX Carrie

    • Lori Bristol

      Carrie,

      You, my dear, are FAR from an idiot!!

      Thank you for sharing your embarrassing moments! I am laughing about the phone being dropped in the water. Lol!! I hope it was not your cell phone!

      You are absolutely NOT crazy!! xoxox Lori

  • GREG FORSTER

    Lori,

    I believe that we multi-task all our lives. What matters is how we balance what we are doing. assign priorities to our attention direction, and like a mental ballet dancer (please, don’t imagine me in a tutu or whatever!) attempt to glide back and forth between priorities as our day progresses. Sounds pleasant? sounds real? It isn’t, yet it also is, for this is an unreachable goal, but one that out of necessity we inherently strive for in order to therapeutically feel and believe that we are actually in control of our lives.

    What a wonderful thought…and…then…CRASH…something else invades our personal space and that dirty word that violates us called “ADJUSTMENT’ controls us, and thru maturity we indeed realize that we must ADJUST-RESET-REBOOT, or whatever four letter word we care to further attach to it, and move onward and, of course, upward.

    Grow or Die as they say.

    …and as you know, I have GROWN to LEARN to not MESS with the E-BOOK.

    Your devoted follower…I’ve got your back!

    Greg

    • Lori Bristol

      Greg,

      Thank you for your humorous comments. I can’t help it, you made me imagine the tutu!

      I agree that while it is not a reachable goal, we all must continue to strive for it, like it or not.

      And thank you for not messing with the eBook! Lol!

      You made me laugh and that makes my day!

      Thank you Greg!
      Lori

  • Joe

    You are very wise Lori thank you for sharing and I am understanding now how true the statement of “slow and steady wins the race” actually is.

    • Lori Bristol

      Thank you for reading and commenting Joe.
      I am glad you found the information helpful.
      Keep on reading!! 🙂

  • Shayna Mallik

    Lori,
    I am someone who has gotten use to having to multi task. Starting one thing then having someone bring something that needs done right now. At times it can be nice to change what you are doing, step away from one task for a brief moment. But then there are times that I go back to my initial task and just have to go thru and figure out where I was so errors are not made. I have worked hard at being able to multi task but after your blog I think trying to focus on one task at a time can help the productivity of what we do, now we all know things come up and we need to switch gears but there will be times when we can stay on our schedule. I also think when we are multi tasking stopping and just taking a deep breath when things get crazy can help us manage those days where multi tasking will just needs to happen. Thank you for the blog and insight!!!

    Shayna 🙂

    • Lori Bristol

      Shayna,

      Thank you for reading and adding your experiences!

      I like your suggestion of stopping to take a deep breath or even walking away for a bit when the tasks become overwhelming.

      I am so glad you are enjoying the blog!

      Lori 🙂

  • Tom

    interesting

    • Lori Bristol

      right?

  • Hi Lori –

    All so true!
    I am so glad to know you love who ever is on the other side of the phone when it rings. What a great marketing message!
    Research shows that multitasking is not a great way to spend your day, it can lead to mistakes and accidents. If you ever feel scatter brained or forgetful it maybe due to trying to multitasking. I have tried to stay focused on one task at a time, when I try to do two or more task at a time, I usually make a mistake or miss being in the moment.

    Thanks for the great blog and reminder!
    Neil

    • Lori Bristol

      Neil,

      Thank you for mentioning my most embarrassing moment again. Lol!
      I still turn red when I think about it.

      I thought it was our age that kept us from successfully multitasking. I am happy you have also researched the topic and come up with similar information.

      “Whever you are, be all there!”

      Thank you,
      Lori

  • Shasta

    Lori,
    I try real hard to multi-task! Usually it just ends up in jumping from one thing to another and being somewhat disorganized. Eventually things get finished, but I’ve learned it’s easiest and most effective to just focus on one task at a time until it’s completed and then starting the next task.

  • Lori Bristol

    Shasta,

    You are great at everything you do! You are such an assett to O’Connor and the Care Center.
    Your smile makes my day! 🙂
    Thank you for reading and commenting.

    Lori

  • Mark

    Lori…..The more I thought about your “mistake” the more I liked it…..I began to think of what would happen at the McDonald’s drive thru if the person taking your order would say “how can I love you” ….for one thing they might get my order correct or when they do mess it up, I won’t be so quick to complain because they are trying to “love” me…. Not all mistakes are bad….there are a lot of worse things you could have said when you answered the phone…personally I would probably select a mortuary that answered the phone that way….we all have a need to be loved….

    Mark

  • Lori

    Mark,

    Thank you for your reply and the sweet sentiment.

    I will be sure to tell you I Love You more often. 😉
    I’m certain you will be really comfortable with that.

    Thanks again my brother!

    Lori

  • Ms. Fran Cantor

    Lori,

    I was not on the blog in 2012, now I’m. Saw this blog and it interest me. I feel
    Women can do any Multitasking. Reason I raise five children by myself and
    I know I did a wonderful task, believe me there was no way I could get away from
    not doing Multitasking . My Adult Children are doing well!!!! I Love it!!!!!

    With work certain project need step by step in order for it to be done correctly,
    that is true. But I do believe some can and some are unable and they know their limit.

    Thank you, this was a great Blog.

    Frannie