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I just love hating multi-tasking.  Self-styled multi-taskers are the most irritating, self-deluding, smug and dangerous people I know. Fortunately, they are doomed to distinction in evolutionary terms – their brains will never spend long on enough attending to one thing to develop into anything beyond neural spacedust, and they will walk into moving traffic as they change songs on their iPods. Unfortunately, a number of the rest of us will be killed by drivers who are reaching for a sandwich, putting on lipstick, arguing on their mobile or distracted by their overpumped in-car entertainment system.  And I predict that most of those killers will be women, since it is women who are falsely credited with being able to multi-task. Let’s hope they stop believing it.

Up til now, my anti multi-tasking rants have focused on a bit of research here, and a hunch there. But I was delighted to see the main points immortalized in print in John Medina’s book Brain Rules. I’d heartily recommend the book, it’s one of the best reads I’ve had in a long time, but for the low-down on the multi-tasking see the section on Attention at www.brainrules.net.

Pass on the good news
If you want to make the world a better place, share the news with others.  Here’s an example. On my way to Malta a few weeks ago, I was waiting in the queue for the checkouts at Boots at Gatwick Airport. There were two people on the tills, one a rather dour looking girl, the other a friendly looking guy. Please God, I thought, let me get the nice bloke. The dour girl was treating the customer in front of her like she was trying to bring back library books that were ten years overdue, issuing thin-lipped information about what the customer could and couldn’t do as she stared into the till and fiddled with change.

I was just on the point of wanting to slap her, when she looked up at the customer and suddenly the impression changed – she wasn’t a fembot after all.  Meanwhile, I was lucky enough to get the nice bloke, who was even nicer than  the impression I’d had. His colleague was bantering with him as I went towards the till, so he smiled at me and said ‘We’re always having these arguments about multi-tasking, because she says men can’t multitask’.

‘Nobody can’, I replied,’Not even women’. Its’ a myth. There are people who think a better word for it would be ‘continuous partial attention’.

‘Continuous partial attention’, he repeated, clearly engaged ‘I must remember that. You learn something new everyday.’

And as I left, I realised why his colleague had come over so dour and ghastly – she was trying to multi-task: talk to a customer while she was counting change. And because she was counting change, she talked to the customer without eye contact, as if the customer was a coin that needed putting in the til, not a human being. As soon as she stopped multi-tasking and focused on the customer, she was normal again.

My nice bloke, by contrast, focused on the customer (me), maintained eye contact, and had a real conversation. He could do this, because he didn’t try to do something else at the same time. For service like that, I’d come back to Boots, so customer-service trainers, take note.

See also (via wikipedia) Christine Rosen (2008) The Myth of Multitasking from The New Atlantis.

One thought on “The multi-tasking myth: how much more evidence do you need?”
  1. At another Boots (at Heathrow), I had to wait for the cashier to finish her conversation with a cashier from another shop who’d dropped by.
    ‘I looked for you on Facebook’ she said ‘But I couldn’t see you’.
    ‘Oh that’s right, it’s because I’m hidden or something. Wait let me tell you what my screen name is’.
    A lot of slow spelling and typing into phones. Just when I thought it was over, they got on to the subject of the visitor’s hairstyle. This went on for a while, and then they finally finished up
    “Keep going with that hair, eh?” was the parting shot with a big smile.
    She then turned to me (after about perhaps 2 minutes of talking to her friend) and her face turned sour and unfriendly, as if to say ‘What are you doing wasting my time in my shop?’
    Well done Boots -excellent customer service and management.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist