Are We Really Able to Multitask?

01 Mar, 2013

by Ken Whitman, Publisher

The majority of states have, in their wisdom, determined that texting while driving isn’t in anybody’s best interests, and an increasing number also don’t allow drivers to use hand-held cell phones. But I’m not writing about iPhones or traffic accidents—I’m writing about attention.

The term multitasking was introduced by IBM back in 1965. In the computer world, if you have more than one task to do on a computer with a single microprocessor, you end up time-sharing. The processor takes turns addressing each job until they’re all done. If you have what’s called a multi-core computer with two or more central processing units, then each CPU can perform separate tasks simultaneously. That’s true multitasking.

Nature has given us amazing brains, but we were only alloted one per person. This means we can’t really multitask. Instead, we have to time-share if we’re trying to do more than one thing concurrently. 

Texting and driving doesn’t work out well, but what about other things? I started noticing how much “multitasking” I was attempting in my life: reading e-mails while talking on the phone, eating dinner while watching television, thinking about things while doing something else; and embarrassingly, the list goes on.

When you get down to it, attention has its limits. If you were to give 100 percent of your attention to what you’re doing—your work, cooking a meal, gardening or having a conversation with a friend, for example—it stands to reason that you should do a better job or have a more fulfilling experience.

It really hit me when I started to try and give my full attention to whatever I was doing. That means if you’re thinking, think. But if you’re listening, don’t think, listen. If you’re doing something, don’t listen or think, do. It wasn’t easy, but I was amazed at the depth and subtlety of experience when I became a unitasker. I realized that I have been dividing my own attention in the belief that I could get more done. But what I gained in quantity, I actually lost in quality. And isn’t quality of life what we want?

You might try experimenting with this yourself. I’m trying to integrate more of one-thing-at-a-time into my life, and I’m finding it both less stressful and more fulfilling.

If you try it, I’d be interested to know what you think. Email me at


Ken Whitman is president of Natural Vitality, a purpose-driven nutritional products company. Natural Vitality publishes Organic Connections as a public service as part of its Calm the Earth Project.

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  • autopuppet1

    SOOOO TRue. Stop taking notes at lectures, just record on iphone or ipad.

  • BlewWave

    I’m guessing you never did the classic boy thing…holding up a magazine while … that’s the first step in multi-tasking for men. :-)

  • Evan Keith Bevirt

    If you really think about it, humans are so new to balancing the onslaught of technology overloading, that we really can’t understand the true long term effects it will have on us. I know that in our quest to stay current on every message, request and demand, we are losing our ability to reflect, and thoughtfully process the data we are bombarded with. We are move quickly to accomplishing the next burning task, at the same time burning the path of big picture understanding we leave behind us. There will be psychological and physical damage as people are forced to process more and more data in less and less time. Life demands time and reflection, and that’s something that’s disappearing fast in our lives.

  • Laura Kurella

    It is amazing how much more we gain by doing less in a given block of time.

  • Ken Whitman

    I agree. By giving whatever you’re doing your full attention, you’re bringing more energy to it. You do more in less time. Part of the gain is more focus and less stress!