The Evils of Multitasking

Check out my article in The New York Times if you don’t believe me. Or even if you do.

13 comments… add one
  • Kathleen Hirsman Link

    Ms. Pennebaker:
    I read your piece, “The Mediocre Multitasker”, in the “Ideas and Trends” section of the Sunday, August 30, 2009 edition of the New York Times.  I find your use of the term “husband” in the following passage of particular interest:
    …Today, Mr. Leleux finds himself in a mixed marriage with a fast-moving, multitasking husband whose professional life, Mr. Leleux said, resembles “His Girl Friday.”
    “Michael can answer e-mails, talk on the phone, approve design concepts and copy and artwork – all at the same time,” he said….
    I wonder, does Mr. Leleux refer to Michael as his “husband”, or was that your descriptive term?  Does “Michael” refer to Mr. Leleux as his (Michael’s) “husband”?  Can a marital relationship of same sex persons have two “husbands”, or for that matter, can such a relationship have two “wives” (excepting polygamous relationships)?  Just curious.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Actually,I don’t make up descriptive names for other people’s spouses; that seems dangerous and presumptuous to me.  Robert and Michael were married in California and Robert refers to Michael as his husband.  Since I don’t know Michael, I’m not sure how he refers to Robert.  I’m inclined to think that — polygamy or not — if you’re going to take the plunge with someone, you should be able to call him or her whatever you want.  Isn’t that part of the vows? P.S. However, I will go on record that calling your spouse of either sex a bitch is a very bad idea.

  • Mei Link

    Good read Ruth. Though I miss what’s new in big ol Texas. Thanks.

  • Matt Link

    The research cited in your article found that people who do more multitasking perfrom less well on various tests.   Then you appear to make a leap from correlation to causality — assuming that multitasking causes these people to perform less well on those tests.  If there is evidence supporting such causality please let me know what it is.  Otherwise I am inclined to support the notion that the causality flows the opposite way — namely that people with shorter attention spans and less skill at these other tasks tend to multitask more.   That is,  greater multitasking is one result, not the cause, of their overall performance deficit.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Matt — The researchers themselves are uncertain about the whole causation issue.  It was something I didn’t want to get into, given the nature of the piece — short, offbeat and playful.

  • Ellen Link

    Great article! I read the research piece, and had to crow. You will understand why.

  • dear ruth,
    just to say i enjoyed your piece on multitasking today and am a turtle,
    so i feel the end was not me! best to you, michael

  • I absolutely love this! Women are supposed to be better multi-taskers than men, but I definitely do best when I focus on one thing at a time.

  • Wendy Lewis Link

    The Mediocre Multitasker:
    It seems to me that the researchers confused multitasking with doing a lot of things at the same time. Multitasking can mean having several jobs going, but also concentrating on them in some sort of order. Most people who have jobs with tasks that intersect develop a process of working on different tasks, seemingly at the same time, but usually with notes or a system that keep things in order. The people who were studied by Stanford seem to be more the types of people who do a lot of things at the same time due to an inability to concentrate, which may be related to ADD. They are busy in a way that gets nothing done. But think of a chef–that’s definitely multitasking, but not really doing a lot of things at the same time…
    Well, maybe they’ll reexamine their definitions and come up with a real study of multitasking.

  • carl granholm Link

    I am really curious what the correlation is with; on one side good, bad, & non multitaskers and their consumption of psycho-active alkaloids; such as caffeine, nicotine & even possibly theobromine (chocolate).
    Just as ‘pot head’ artists are said to think of themselves as more ‘creative’ than they may actually be, tobacco-coffee people (to me anyway) seem to subject-jump, being deficient in short term to long term comprehension. It is also likely that this (to me again) personality flaw precededs, and even leads to self medication with such stimulants, which seems, paradoxically, to lead to a state of decreased mental capability.

  • Marlene pagley Link

    I found the article interesting but somewhat disconcerting.  I tried to find the research paper to more clearly understand how the test was performed.  With millions of people multi-tasking, including our country’s highest leaders, did this group of 100 really represent a good sampling.
    Also, to say that all multi-taskers do mediocre work is pretty damming.  I am confident that those millions of mothers who perform many tasks during the course of one day,  will not find this to be a particulary positive outcome.  And, since women have been known to be the larger group of multi-taskers,  it implies that they are mediocre at best.
    I also agree with Wendy that multi-taskers are really doing many things in rapid succession and have their own way or organizing the information.
    I certainly look forward to more on this subject.

  • Steve Link

    Let the church say, “Amen.” I drove to and from the Texas panhandle this week for the opening of dove season (tasty little dark-meated birds, they are), and the owner and driver of the truck insisted on driving and texting and talking on the damned cell phone. I’m sure that he and the others in the truck grew weary of my whining and nagging, but I really didn’t have any interest in dying so that he could text on his iPhone. The only multitasking at which I consider myself competent is drinking whiskey, chewing cigars, playing 42, and telling stories at the same time, but I will confess that my competency at 42 decreases in inverse proportion to my attention to the whiskey and the stories.

  • chris Link

    I found your article on Multitaskers interesting but respectfully disagree with your analysis that We are “lousy at everything”.  Guess I heard that a lot in elementry and highschool and from friends but never thought I would read it in the Austin American-Statesman.  I would argue that any study including college students (as was cited in the article) on efficency and or effectivness has many flaws but that is an entirely different issue  Below is a post I wrote to a person that questioned me about my success in multitasking:

    Lisa, before I respond to your post I would like to mention an article I found today in the Austin American-Statesman in the Insight section.  The article, written by Ruth Pennebaker of the New York Times is titled “Multitaskers excel only at mediocrity, study suggests”.  I mention because according to the article I, and other multitaskers, am really not productive and in fact, seem to produce no value to firms.  

    This said, my response may not actually depict reality (as the writer has attempted to demonstrate in the article) since I feel I am pretty darned effective, thanks to what I call my gifts of dyslexia and ADHD.  I thank the Lord each day for these gifts.
    I was diagnosed as a class-four (worst case) dyslexic in 1980 and was told about the ADHD (really no suprise there) in late 80’s early 90’s.  I was 16 when I was enrolled in a study to test and “deal with” dyslexia.  I wasted two years where peopl gave me eye-exercises and counseling and advised that there was no known way to “fix” the issue.  I was in LD classes from 7th – 12th grade and told that college was not my best route but told to focus on just getting a job and learning basic skills.  Not going to write my bio here but just a quick history. 
    Today I am married, have a decent job, and manage a global team for a fortune 50 company.  I am no Einstein but have managed to save over $20M USD for companies and clients I have worked for over the past 10 years (I call that pretty darned cost effective).  Bragging????  Heck no…..  Just painting a picture of someone who could really give a darn about what people say about me.  I get frustrated when I hear excuses from people about why they can’t do something due to some disability they claim to have. 

    There is absolutely a place for unitaskers (I call them “stampers”) but in today’s economy and corporate downsizing I have found more firms looking for employees that have the experience in multiple fields and less on single-threaded employees.  More of a generalist or jack-of-many-trades even if they are not masters of a particular discipline.  Hope I have not bored you, just trying to respond to your question.

Leave a Comment