You Really Aren’t Multitasking and If You Were It Would Slow You Down

Welcome back to slow-down Sunday, where Principal-Matters! encourages school leaders everywhere to be their most effective and efficient by using research-based, time-proven strategies to slow it down.  Here’s this week’s installment!


If you’re a principal or assistant principal, you’ve heard this one before.  Maybe you’ve even said it.  It’s part of the false archetype of the superhero school leader.  You actually are human, you need rest, recovery, and renewal and you’re not a machine.

Machines are where the term originated.  In 1965, an IBM report referred to capacities of IBM/System360 and used the term “multitask” to refer to the computers capacity to do multiple operations at once.  It would appear that this is the first reference to the term, and it didn’t take long for it to be used to describe humans.

Humans, according to thorough, long-term, exhaustive research, are not as disposed to success in doing more than one thing at a time as the IBM/System360 or the fifty-years of advanced computing to follow that model.  What study after study has continually found to be the truth is this:  computers are built to multitask; humans haven’t made any advancement during the same fifty year period.

Neuroscience research shows that our brains just don’t do tasks simultaneously.  When we switch from one thing to another, our brains actually go through a start/stop process that slows the progress we were making. The time lost can be seconds or even microseconds, but over a larger period time its cumulative effect for the busy school leader is lost time.  Additionally, the potential for making mistakes grows when attention is diverted from one task to another.  When one seeks to complete a number of tasks at once, the likelihood of errors grows, as does the loss of time.

Those disciples of multitasking who would argue differently might consider taking this test, found in Psychology Today and shared by Dr. Nancy Napier.  What follows is an excerpt from the article, including the multitasking test.

  1. Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper
  2. Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
  • On the first line, write: 
    • I am a great multitasker
  • On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
    • 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s multitask. 

Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, and again have someone time you, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter “I” and then the number “1” and then the letter “a” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.

I a…..

1 2…..

I’ll bet you your time is double or more what it was on the first round. You also may have made some errors and you were probably frustrated since you had to “rethink” what the next letter would be and then the next number.  Multi tasking is switchtasking and it takes time.

That’s switch-tasking on something very simple, but that’s exactly what happens when we attempt to do many things (often more complex) at the same time. 


So next time you think you’re multi-tasking, stop and be aware that you are really switch-tasking.  Then give yourself a time limit (10 minutes, 45 minutes?) and focus on just one task and see if you can’t complete it better, faster, and with less energy.

So, while today is Slow Down Sunday, you can accomplish more all week long and complete tasks more effectively is you slow down a bit each day and focus on the task at hand.  If another task is really more important, do it first and then come back.


The Myth of Multitasking                          (The source of the excerpt above)

Twelve Reasons Multitasking Doesn’t Work,,20707868,00.html

Multitasking Is Killing Your Brain                                                     

The Autumn of the Multitaskers

Think You’re Multitasking?  Think Again

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