Honk If You Have MTD (Multi-Tasking Disorder)

Many of us are the victims of MTD, a modern-day malady that erodes our quality of life and personal effectiveness.

It was a small snapshot posted on the Facebook page of an editor friend — one of the rolling displays you see in front of many churches, with a “thought of the day.” In this case, it read, “HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS… TEXT WHILE DRIVING IF YOU WANT TO MEET HIM.”

My friend's comment was, “I can't help myself; I laughed.”

Laugh at it or not, the sign nonetheless perfectly encapsulates an increasingly common fact of modern life, the downside implications of the near constant multi-tasking that most of us do or are asked to do.

Visit any airport and observe the Bluetooth earset-enabled phone conversations that go on continuously, from ticket counter to boarding line to rest rooms to baggage claim. Or drop by a college campus as I frequently do — but look out for the bicycling students who are sometimes also concurrently texting with one hand and listening to an iPod on the way to a class. Needless to say, they often aren't very aware of other traffic that might be approaching from ahead or behind.

On major highways, you can always spot the cars in which drivers are engaged in phone conversation. They often leave excessive distances between the car ahead and their own, speed up and slow down erratically, and wander back and forth between (and sometimes over) the edges of their lanes as the driver's attention skips back and forth between the road and the mental engagement needed to carry on conversation.

Such multi-tasking follows us into our work lives every day, as business models increasingly require one to be engaged in several tasks at one time while also being constantly ready to respond to phone calls, e-mails, instant messages, text messages — and even the occasional, live office visitor!

Indeed, it is now common for companies to tell traveling employees that they should no longer post “out of town” messages on their email accounts or phone lines, but to instead plan on responding to messages that are left as if they were still in the office. The world operates 24-7 and one's professional relationships are often expected to do so as well.

Many of us long ago realized that we are the victims of what I call MTD (Multi-Tasking Disorder) a modern-day malady that not only affects our personal well being and quality of life, but also our work quality and productivity.

While the common perception is that multi-tasking makes us more productive, there's plenty of research to suggest the opposite is actually true. Research published by scholars and psychologists at Stanford, Harvard, Columbia and other institutions also suggests that those who embrace multi-tasking behavior tend to significantly overestimate how effective they are at it.

For example, in a February article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanford University Professor of Psychology Clifford Nass observed that “Heavy multitaskers are often extremely confident in their abilities. But there's evidence that those people are actually worse at multitasking than most people.” Other research suggests that while under the right circumstances the human brain can manage two tasks at once, its efficiency at handling either of them is significantly compromised.

Meanwhile, the concept of “mindfulness” — of seeking to be fully aware of one's presence and surroundings, of seeking to minimize mental background “noise” in order to fully experience that awareness — is a practice that grows more and more therapeutic even as it becomes more difficult to achieve in our everyday lives.

If you want to weigh in on this subject, we invite you to do so in the comment area under this column on our website. And if you want learn more about the research in this area, here are a few links to follow:

scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=multitasking-two-tasks [3]
chronicle.com/article/Scholars-Turn-Their-Attention/63746/ [4]
www.umich.edu/~bcalab/multitasking.html [5]
www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx [6]

In the meantime: take a deep breath, let it out slowly, quietly, and without distraction. Repeat as needed.