Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Multitasking takes focus off important tasks

I value my life and am counting on workers whose hands I put it in to take their jobs very seriously. People such as train conductors, pilots, bus drivers and others who operate machinery or tools that require their full attention. Unfortunately, as demonstrated again recently, the temptation to do otherwise is too great for some.

The latest poor judgment call that turned into multitasking-gone-terribly-wrong took place in Boston. A trolley operator ran a red light while text-messaging his girlfriend and crashed into another trolley injuring 49 people. What was he thinking?

Psychotherapist Charles Lawrence calls this behavior “faulty estimation.” Someone overestimates their ability to do two things at once or underestimates the importance of paying attention to the task at hand. Or “They are trying to fulfill what they believe is an important desire and have concluded that it is more important than the situation they are in.”

What could be so important that looking away from your job – even for two seconds – puts lives in peril? The sudden thought that you left the door unlocked, which causes you to text your roommate to go home and check? This, says Lawrence, is a desire to avoid something painful.

Or it could be your desire to win control or power. An example is the frustration you feel about your girlfriend’s family always getting in your business that ends up being an argument via text. Or it could be your desire for physical or emotional gratification. Example: You’re supposed to be focusing on the machine in front of you when you get a text from someone you’ve been longing to hear from.

You make a choice that that text message or conversation “has to happen now to get an important desire fulfilled,” says Lawrence. You get distracted and look down. Then it’s too late.

This compulsion to respond to a ringing cell phone or text message no matter what, stems from various interrelated issues, says clinical hypnotherapist John McGrail. Distraction is one. Since work routines are “often viewed as boring, single-minded mundane activities, the ‘illicit’ communication provides a distraction,” he says.

Isolation is another. Living in a competitive society that has evolved into “an ethos of isolation,” getting a call or text “creates a feeling of connection and intimacy that we all subconsciously crave.”

Then there’s multitasking – which despite how talented you think you are – is simply not possible. Your brain is designed to focus on one task at a time, McGrail says.

Even with your brain’s 100 billion neurons processing information at a rate of up to a thousand times per second you simply cannot effectively do two tasks at the same time, say Vanderbilt University neuroscientists Paul E. Dux and Rene Marois.

Just as one generation hates to let a phone ring, the Net generation hates to let a text go unanswered, offers Marcia Reynolds author of “Outsmart Your Brain.” “So they think they can do two things at once. The truth is, while you are texting, you are giving 100 percent to your text and none to your job.”

Until this train accident, Boston transit employees were prohibited from talking or texting on cell phones while working. Now the chief of the transit authority is banning train, bus and trolley operators from even carrying cell phones and other personal electronic devices while on duty.

I’ve seen job descriptions that list and resumes that brag about the ability to multitask. Trying to do two things at once is not only unproductive, it’s not humanly possible. For some jobs, it can be deadly. And that’s a fact worth giving your full attention.

Andrea Kay is the author of “Work’s a Bitch and Then You Make It Work: 6 Steps to Go From Pissed Off to Powerful.” Send questions to her at 2692 Madison Rd., (POUND)133, Cincinnati, OH 45208; www.andreakay.com or www.lifesabitchchangecareers.com. She can be e-mailed at: andrea@andreakay.com.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

Search site | Terms of service