The Illusion of Multitasking

Part 1 of a Two-Part Essay

I do not own a smartphone. Although I am no Luddite, this is a source of pride for me, as I am 1) not bothered by constant intrusions, and 2) don’t have to pay for them. If I did have such a device, I would use it sparingly, rather than constantly, as is others’ wont. I find it sad that so many people are so controlled by their own technology. Thanks to a recent article in the New York Times, we can see how mobile technology is a very mixed blessing. A major pitfall of mobile devices is that they lead people to believe that they are actually multitasking. Neurological research has shown that the brain can only attend to one thing at a time. Multitasking really is only doing several things one at a time quickly. Employers like this ability, as it helps them think they’re getting their money’s worth out of the employee. Although working quickly is a laudable skill, I find the excessive value placed on it to be dehumanizing for workers. My fantasy is that someday workers simply will refuse to put themselves through this sort of misery, and happier, as well as more productive, workplaces will ensue.

“…doing one thing at a time is hard, because it means asserting ourselves over what technology makes easy and what feels productive in the short term. Multitasking comes with its own high, but when we chase after this feeling, we pursue an illusion.”

Although attempts to achieve multitasking cause untold stress at work and at home, the primary problem with this belief is that it prevents mindfulness. Mindfulness allows for focus, for attendance on one thing exclusively. This is the type of mental skill that science requires, the type of focus artists use to create, the type of focus contemplatives use to meditate. Mindfulness is promoted by Transcendental Meditation as well as other contemplative schools, and much research has been done that supports mindfulness as providing health benefits. Contemplatives the world over have made use of this technique for centuries to reach the quiet calm of the center where they can find union with God. Mindfulness, or any other type of mental focus for that matter, must be cultivated; it is not easily achieved without practice. In order to accomplish this, people need to spend more time away from their devices and attending to what they are doing.

Best of all is cultivating this quiet attentiveness constantly, not allowing incessant interruptions, but rather taking the time to consider the natural world or read each word of a book. Work tasks become less onerous when attended to with care. This sets us apart from the mainstream, but is the mainstream where we want to be? I am happier in quieter waters.

Next week I’ll conclude this essay with a discussion of empathy and solitude.


Copyright © 2015 Teresa Chupp.  All rights reserved.


For further reading on this topic, see “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” by Sherry Turkle, a professor in the program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T. The New York Times article mentioned and quoted from above is adapted from this book.


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