The timer beeps as my toddler cries as a text dings as my laptop flashes an email … as my mind explodes. I repress the urge to bark the chaos into stillness. Then I breathe, sidestep the whirling cloud, and carry on.
Ah, the multi-tasking life: hurtling forward, leaving us all with whiplash and crumbled shards of attention. Are we happy yet? More efficient?
Truth is, I love multi-tasking. I live by my laptop and smart phone, and an unanswered email or text is an anomaly. I march with my media to the drumbeat of productivity. Don't we all?
Of course multi-tasking is earth-old; Adam and Eve no doubt conversed while picking fruit. But to-day's multi-tasking is new in type: multi-tasking means doing two mental things, such as talking and texting. I love Christine Rosen's definition: doing "simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible."
It's the tools that really amp up the game. Remember when it was just a radio, landline, and TV? Today's an unending flood of Twitter, mobile apps, iPads bringing us triple the daily information folks consumed in 1960.
But multi-tasking comes with two big problems. First, it doesn't make us any more efficient than solo-tasking—we actually perform tasks more slowly because brains need extra time to toggle be-tween tasks. Second, it's downright bad for us.
How is it bad? It impedes short-term memory, decreases overall mental performance, and causes stress, hormonally triggering "a vicious cycle where we multi-task, take longer to get things done, then feel harried and compelled to multi-task more," says journalist John Naish. And the brain-toggling that comes with ongoing multi-tasking shortens our attention, eventually addicting us through spurts of adrenaline continually being released. In the absence of multi-tasking, one study reported in The New York Times concluded, "people feel bored."1