If Multitasking Is Impossible, Why Are Some People So Good at It?

"Multitasking means screwing up several things at once," somebody once said, wrongly. In fact, we don't do many things at once, ever. We do many things in quick succession. And some of us are very good at it.

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Everybody multitasks. We have conversations while driving. We answer email while browsing the Web. It's hard to imagine living any other way. What would be the alternative, removing the seats from your car to ensure you only drive alone? Block every website not named Gmail? A world of constant single-tasking is too absurd to contemplate.

But science suggests that multitasking as we know it is a myth. "Humans don't really multitask," said Eyal Ophir, the primary researcher with the Stanford Multitasking study. "We task-switch. We just switch very quickly between tasks, and it feels like we're multitasking."

In other words, you feel like you're multitasking when you're on the Web. But if you slow down and think about your attention, you'll agree that answering email while browsing the Web is impossible. You answer email. Then you browse. Then back to email. Then again with the browsing. Like the pictures in a flip book, our focus is discrete. It is only with time and motion that our fluttering attention gains the illusion of multitasking.

***

In 1946, the world was introduced to history's first general-purpose electronic computer: ENIAC, nicknamed the "Giant Brain." At the time, the word multi-tasking did not exist. It first appeared in a magazine called Datamation in 1966, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the following sentence: "Multi-tasking is defined as the use of a single CPU for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs." 


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Over the next 65 years, computers have become multitasking wizards, with the ability to download movies while playing music while running complex programs and executing a million other functions we take for granted, yet in 1946 would have seemed like magic. Meanwhile, the people operating these wondrous machines have not gotten any better at multitasking over the last 60 years. If anything, we have gotten worse.

In The Shallows, a book about memory and the Internet, Nicholas Carr said the Web was changing the way we think, read and remember. Humans are hunters and hoarders of information. We seek, we find, we remember. If the Internet is helping us seek and find data, it is hurting our ability to absorb and retain it. Before the Internet, the theory goes, our attentions expanded vertically. With the Internet, our focus extends horizontally, and shallowly.

Why do we think we're so good at something that doesn't exist? We compensate for our inability to multitask with a remarkable ability to single-task in rapid succession. Our brains aren't a volley of a thousand arrows descending on an opposing army. Our brains are Robin Hood. One man with one bow firing on all comers, one at a time.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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