Recently, I found myself in what could have been a serious automobile accident. For the third time this month, I had been driving next to an individual attempting to text while driving. Given the state of Indiana’s new law which bans one from reading, writing, and sending text messages while driving, I was highly alarmed. It was hard for me to understand how this man felt capable of performing the visual tasks of driving and texting simultaneously. This is one of several behaviors that I refer to as “multi-tasking,” when one attempts to perform two tasks simultaneously.

These instances I’ve had with other drivers led me to examine the act of multi-tasking in the context of our rapidly evolving technological society.  In doing this, several questions came to mind:

1.   Why do we multi-task?   

2.   Can the brain effectively do two things at once?

3.   What impact does multitasking have on our relationships with others?

In part one of this series on multi-tasking, I have chosen to focus on the first question, Why do we multi-task?

Whether you eat breakfast in the car, talk on the phone while walking your dog, or watch television while responding to emails, all of us often find ourselves multi-tasking to some degree or another. For some, it has even become an addiction. Here are a few of the many explanations for why multi-task:

1.  Technology allows us to do more tasks simultaneously:  This can be traced to the economic habits of global capitalism where machines allowed people to split up work into interchangeable parts, allowing each part to go faster.  In the same way, technology allows us to be moving constantly, switching our attention from task to task with astonishing speed. Therefore, technology has programmed us to perform as many tasks as possible, as quickly as possible, using as many technologies possible.

2.  It provides a way for us to structure and to feel more control over time:  While multi-tasking can be overwhelming, it often leads to feelings of productivity, as we are pleased with our ability to juggle several different tasks in a short amount of time. For example, when we get stuck on a project, we can switch projects for awhile and come back to an old project with a fresh perspective. Therefore, multi-tasking increases our confidence in our ability to respond to the countless demands in both our personal and professional lives.

3. “Must be good at multi-tasking” is one of the most common skills on job postings: Multi-tasking has become a requirement now for one to be able to work and/or to get a job. Prospective candidates, therefore, must use their ability to multi-task as a way to differentiate themselves from other candidates. Additionally, on the employee side, one is typically expected to handle numerous projects at a time, coordinating tasks simultaneously. Therefore, multi-tasking serves as a way for individuals to feel productive.

Do you find yourself frequently multitasking throughout the day? What’s your reason for doing so?