By MARSHA MERCER
Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell may be widely respected as a politician, diplomat and businessman, but at home he’s just another dad on the losing side of the tech battle.
When his young daughter does her homework, she listens to music on her iPod and watches television at the same time.
“How can you do three things?” asks perplexed dad.
“Daddy, it’s different now,” she replies. “We can do that. You can’t.”
Mitchell, 78, told the story at a Washington conference the other day, adding, “I don’t think that’s true, but it’s something that a person thinks she can do three things at the same time and do them all well.”
And who doesn’t multitask? It’s the way of modern life, a necessity, and we all think we’re great at it. Researchers, though, say we’re not. Yes, we’re doing more things at the same time – but badly. In fact, the people who think they’re the best at multitasking usually do it more poorly than others, research shows.
The message is starting to sink in. “The Distracted Mind,” a special, is airing on PBS, and last month’s South by Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, devoted a session to “Your Brain on Multitasking.” The most-read Harvard Business Review blog post for the last 30 days has been “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time” by bestselling author Tony Schwartz.
Schwartz writes: “Tell the truth: Do you answer email during conference calls (and sometimes even during calls with one other person)? Do you bring your laptop to meetings and then pretend to take notes while you surf the net? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you make calls while you’re driving, and even send the occasional text, even though you know you shouldn’t?”
All those ordinary activities actually cost us productivity, he says, citing research that when we split our attention, we increase the time it takes to finish a task by 25 percent.
Schwartz advises business managers to cut meeting time, stop demanding instant responses and encourage staff renewal through afternoon yoga classes, group walks or even naps. It’s nice to think about such things, but few of us live in a world with approved naps on the job.
He offers more plausible tips for individuals to boost their productivity. Do the most important thing first in the morning, preferably without interruption, for 60 to 90 minutes. Schedule thinking time. Take real and regular vacations.
Schwartz isn’t alone in encouraging people to stop and smell the roses -- without taking a picture and tweeting it.
At South by Southwest, author and business consultant Peter Bregman offered a tough-love plan to reduce multitasking. Changing habits means changing your environment, he began. Put the cell phone out of reach – not just on the back seat but in the trunk. Or leave the cell at home when going out with the family for the evening.
Kill the Internet connection to avoid constantly checking email. When you do multitask, make sure the tasks are compatible, he said. Bregman bikes around Manhattan, getting a workout while he travels where he needs to go.
Multitasking works efficiently when the tasks call on different channels of the brain, David Meyer, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, explained.
It’s easy to fold up laundry and listen to the weather report on the radio because the tasks call on different brain channels. Driving and texting rely on the same channel, and that’s dangerous.
Multitasking skills do improve with repetition, said Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, who hosts “The Distracted Mind.” But, multitasking and other cognitive skills peak at about age 23, he said, and it’s downhill from there.
So, it’s true that younger people are better than older people at multitasking -- but not preteens like George Mitchell’s daughter. Sorry, kids.
And let’s give Mitchell credit for knowing he can’t do three things well at the same time. Even in the digital age, father knows best.
(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.