Kris Oser, 37, of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., is an email fiend. A single
mother and director of communications for a market research company, she has to
be immediately accessible to executives and the news media.
That means Oser is often on the phone and messaging several people at the
same time -- and that can lead to trouble. In one recent gaffe, she mistakenly
emailed a reporter at The Wall Street Journal instead of her best
friend, asking her to pick up Oser’s daughter from school.
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“Speed is the modern, natural high,” says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, MD,
director of the Hallowell Center for Cognitive and Emotional Health in Sudbury,
Mass. But he insists that true multitasking is a myth. We may feel we’re doing
two -- or more -- things at once, but it’s an illusion. Instead, we’re quickly
switching our focus back and forth.
That’s because the cerebral cortex can pay attention to only one thing at a
time, says Hallowell. “What people really do is shift their attention from one
task to the next in rapid succession. That reduces the quality of the work on
any one task, because you’re ignoring it for milliseconds at a time.”
The cortex handles “executive control” -- that is, allocating the mind’s
resources and prioritizing between tasks. However, there’s a lag of up to
several tenths of a second each time it handles a switch, according to a
University of Michigan study completed for the Federal Aviation Administration.
This tiny bit of time can add up to big inefficiencies, the study shows.
Multitaskers Are Distracted
Distraction can also be dangerous. David Strayer, a professor of psychology
at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and an expert on driver
distraction, has found that a motorist talking on a cell phone is every bit as
impaired as someone who’s legally drunk. And there are health costs: Stress,
including the self-imposed kind, means more cortisol into the bloodstream.
Chronically elevated levels of cortisol can damage the heart, cause high blood
pressure, suppress the immune system, and make you susceptible to type 2
Even so, Oser says you couldn’t pry her away from her BlackBerry. But she
does constantly try to remind herself, “The human brain must be honored for the
way it actually operates.”
Ready to be here, now? Hallowell offers these four strategies for
managing your crazy-busy life:
Mix and match. Pair high-cortical involvement tasks -- those that
involve judgment -- with routine, physical tasks that the cerebellum, the
brain’s autopilot, can handle. For example, talk to your mom on the phone while
Rest your case. If your hectic schedule demands you rise at the
crack of dawn, steal an hour from the TV at night. A sleepy brain can’t
Wean from screens. Resist email, the Internet, texting --
anything that’s not essential to the work you’re doing right now.
Ban boredom. Try to do what you love and what matters most. Organize
your life around this principle, and you won’t be tempted away from the task at