The Perils of Multitasking

The dangers of texting while driving recently received renewed attention thanks to a public service video produced by German film director Werner Herzog.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that driver distraction results in approximately 3,000 deaths per year, as well as an additional 400,000 injuries.  Experts have estimated that the risk of a crash may increase by more than 20 times when texting, exceeding the risk associated with intoxication.

Texting while driving is just one example of a larger phenomenon of our age, often referred to as multitasking.  The term was coined by IBM engineers in the 1960s to refer to the ability of a microprocessor to perform multiple tasks at once.  Today the term is more often applied to human beings attempting to do more than one thing, such as simultaneously watching television and folding laundry, or answering emails while talking on the phone.  Many health professionals pride themselves on their multitasking.

In fact, however, the term multitasking is a bit of a misnomer, even in the domain of computing.  At least where one microprocessor is concerned, a computer does not so much multitask as it switches back and forth between tasks at such a high rate of speed that it appears to be doing multiple things at once.  Only more recently, with the advent of multicore processing, has it become possible for computers genuinely to multitask.

The same thing applies to human beings.  Health professionals and others who think they are multitasking are typically switching back and forth between different tasks over short periods of time.  And in most cases, multitaskers are not able to perform any of the activities in which they are engaged as well as they could if they concentrated on them one at a time.  It takes time and effort to re-focus on each task at hand, and this tends to degrade the effectiveness and efficiency of each.

To be sure, multitasking is not impossible.  In one sense, simply remaining alive requires us to multitask all the time.  Our hearts are continuously pumping, lungs exchanging gases, kidneys filtering the blood, immune system fighting infections, and all the while we are also digesting our last meal.  Add to this the ceaseless multitasking of the brain, which is monitoring the environment and maintaining our posture while simultaneously walking and chewing gum, and the complexity multiples.

Yet multitasking creates problems in numerous ways.  First, it is difficult to perform even many motor tasks well when we are distracted.  For example, pianists and dancers invariably perform suboptimally when they are not focused on what they are doing.  Likewise, it is essentially impossible to perform arithmetical calculations and write poetry at the same time.  And learning appears to be impaired when our attention is focused elsewhere, hence the elementary school teacher’s refrain, “Pay attention!”

Some of the greatest threats of multitasking are not, like those posed by texting and driving, to life and limb, but to the meaning – of lack thereof – of life itself.  Is there anything in life of sufficient importance that it warrants our undivided attention?  Is there anything wonderful enough, beautiful enough, or true enough that we would choose to attend to it to the temporary exclusion of everything else?  Only if our answer is no would it make sense never to question a lack of focus.

On the other hand, are there circumstances in life where our undivided attention is not only warranted but even necessary?  Suppose, for example, that living fully requires us to be fully present in some of our activities, whether playing the piano, making love, or carrying on a conversation.  If this were the case, then a predilection for multitasking would reveal a failure to prioritize our lives and discipline our minds appropriately.

In the realm of human relationships, multitasking can cause huge problems.  Consider the scene of a young woman embracing her new boyfriend while simultaneously photographing the moment with her cell phone for posting on the internet, or the man who never looks up from his newspaper as his wife relates her growing sense of desperation over the decline in their marriage.  Multitasking unmistakably conveys that the other person is not the focus of our attention and does not matter to us.

The roots of the problem of multitasking go deeper still.  When we multitask we divide ourselves up, inevitably introducing disunity.  The multitasking body remains an integrated whole, but the multitasking mind becomes fragmented.  We come to resemble an uncoordinated symphony orchestra, producing not music but cacophony.  Doing so signals that we suffer from a lack commitment, an unwillingness to immerse ourselves completely in any one thing.

Caveats about multitasking recapitulate important insights from ancient wisdom traditions.  We can only be where we are.  Those who seek to be in multiple places at once inevitably end up nowhere.  Hence the sages’ emphasis on concentration, focus, attention, and presence.  In giving in to the temptation to attend to two or three different things at once we end up discouraged, disoriented, and even desperate.  Where peace of mind is concerned, our only hope is to do but one thing at a time.

A teenager who texts while driving is failing to take sufficiently seriously the inherent hazards of moving tons of metal through space at a high rate of speed.  An artist who tries to talk on the phone while painting is failing to take seriously the demands of genuine creativity.  And a physician who incessantly enters data into an electronic medical record while discussing a grievous illness with a patient is failing to take seriously the innate need for human connection.

Practice is needed most of all not in multitasking but in focusing our attention and centering ourselves on one thing.  How?  Meditation and prayer are two practical approaches.  The spirit of each reminds us that work and life are not just a matter of completing tasks.  They are also a matter of true presence, without which we cannot truly live.  To come fully to life we need to focus our time and attention on what merits them most and be fully present in what we are doing.

In our age, the ability to multitask is often highly regarded.  And no wonder – as Blaise Pascal wrote, distraction is often the only thing that consoles us for our miseries.  Yet we forget at our peril what Pascal went on to say – namely, that distraction is also the greatest of our miseries.  When we focus our attention on what it really takes to multitask, we see that too much of it, far from increasing our productivity, actually robs us of life.

Richard Gunderman, MD, PhD, is Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy at Indiana University; he was a past president of the faculty at Indiana University School of Medicine and currently serves as Vice Chair of Radiology. Gunderman is also the 2013 Spinoza professor at the University of Amsterdam, the author of over 380 scholarly articles and has published eight books, including Achieving Excellence in Medical EducationWe Make a Life by What We Give,  Leadership in Healthcare and most recently, X-Ray Vision.

3 replies »

  1. Before we had EMRs, we still had many physicians who would enter the exam room with the chart in hand, and proceed to review it while listening to the patient. Not ideal for care, and EMRs have almost certainly made things worse on this front, although overall we certainly needed to move beyond paper charts.

    This is a nice post and I hope the OP will follow-up with another one specifically about the impacts of multitasking on our work as clinicians.

  2. ********”And a physician who incessantly enters data into an electronic medical record while discussing a grievous illness with a patient is failing to take seriously the innate need for human connection.”********

    That should be the title of your piece. The neurophysiologists describe synapse dysfunction as a result of frequent multitasking, depleting cognitive power and mental agility.