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Book review: 'Myth' debunks multitasking

Published: Sunday, Aug. 17 2008 12:40 a.m. MDT

THE MYTH OF MULTITASKING: HOW "DOING IT ALL" GETS NOTHING DONE, by Dave Crenshaw, Jossey-Bass, 138 pages, $19.95.

Dave Crenshaw, a business coach for CEOs, is a graduate of Brigham Young University's School of Management. In this candid and satirical little book, he takes on one of the most talked about social myths of the modern scene — multitasking.

Using an anecdotal approach, Crenshaw tells stories about executives with the key phrase being that "multitasking is a lie. The truth is that multitasking is neither a reality nor is it efficient," writes Crenshaw, acting the role of a business executive lecturing an employee who prides herself on her ability to do many things at the same time.

Crenshaw quotes the conclusion of a study conducted at the University of California at Irvine, saying, "Eleven is the average number of minutes an employee can devote to a project before being interrupted."

To buttress that statement, Crenshaw includes another from Rene Marois, a Vanderbilt University psychologist, who said, "Our research offers neurological evidence that the

brain cannot effectively do two things at once."

In Crenshaw's fictional account of a business owner trying to teach a CEO that she is not really multitasking, she gives him an example of continuing to answer her e-mails even while a secretary comes in and asks her a question. The owner asserts that she was not multitasking at all — but switchtasking.

As a result, she lost time, maybe five minutes — and she did both tasks with lower quality. The author adds Suze Orman, a prominent business author, saying that multitasking is "the absolute ruination of the perfection of a project."

Finally, the author concludes that the CEO in his example lost on average 28 percent of the workday due to interruptions and inefficiencies — with multitasking or switchtasking being responsible.

According to one study, two hours are lost per person through interruptions during a 40-hour work week. Another researcher concluded that $650 billion is lost to the U.S. economy due to interruptions just like these.

Crenshaw asserts that multitasking became popular toward the end of the 20th century as a way of justifying the chaos most of us face on a daily basis. We simply turned it to our advantage, thinking that multitasking is a good thing. He quotes the Wikipedia definition of multitasking as "the apparent simultaneous performance of two or more tasks by a computer's central processing unit."

The key word is "apparent."

Crenshaw throws in another term, "background tasking," meaning a person "performs two or more tasks where only one of those tasks requires mental effort." For instance, you could eat dinner while watching TV — or jog while listening to music — or talking on the phone while driving.

Crenshaw quotes a neuropsychologist saying, "The brain is a lot like a computer. You may have several screens open on your desktop, but you're able to think about only one at a time." Not only that, but Crenshaw alleges that women are in fact not better at multitasking then men.

One of the worst side effects of multitasking is "giving people segmented attention" because relationships could be damaged.

Whether you agree with the concept of this book or not, it is definitely worth taking stock of your own tendency and ability to multitask (or switchtask). However, the time the author spends on worksheets is a huge waste of time.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com

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