“Multitasking” is an “Urban Legend” – You Really Can Have only One Focus at a Time


Willful BlindnessOne frustrated psychologist has argued that the case for multitasking is on a par with “urban legend”; that is, it’s a story we like the sound of but that is really nonsense.
From Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvoius at our Peril

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So, here’s the problem. We think we can do two things at once.

We can’t

I have written through that years that when we read something in one place, it is worth paying some attention to. But when we read it time and again, maybe there really is something to it. Maybe we are being shouted at: PAY ATTENTION TO THIS!

Well, it is now being written about seemingly everywhere — so, pay attention to this! You cannot do two things at once.

As Margaret Heffernan builds her case about how we simply do not see some pretty important stuff that we should see, one problem she describes is that we only see what we are focused on. “We just do not have enough mental capacity to do all the things that we think we can do.” No, we don’t.

Count the passes, w: gorillaIn this chapter of her book, she writes a lot about the famous “Can you Count the Passes?” video. You know, the one where you are intent on counting the passes of a basketball, and you miss the person in a gorilla suit walking through the scene. You are focused on one thing; you miss the other thing, even though it is quite prominent. (Watch the video here).

Why? Because we do not see much of anything when our focus is on something else. This is true for TSA agents at the airport; this is true for drivers texting on their cell phones (You either focus on your phone, or on the road. You can’t focus on both!).

And, it has interesting business implications. If you focus on doing your current task well – and you should – then you can’t focus on what task to do next. You either focus on what to do now, or you focus on what to do next.

One focus at a time.

That’s all you can do. You really can have only one focus at a time

So, what are you focusing on?

(And, by the way, here is Ms. Heffernan’s point – if you focus on one aspect of anything, you miss the other aspects. That leads to blindness – blindness that leads to big, big problems).

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