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“We must achieve more in less time and multitasking has become next to normal”, says psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter in an interview on Februari 15th. We understand what he says, and yet his remark hides a big paradox. Because we do many things simultaneously it will cost us more time and we don’t get many things done. How exactly does this work?

There is ample proof that both men and women can only do one thing at a time. One thing that needs our attention and concentration. Like driving a car, really listen to someone or study for an exam. If we do such a thing with attention we will be effective and efficient. But we tend to do more and more things at the same time. While we are studying someone throws a question, the telephone rings a couple of times and we get a few pushmails or notifications from our smartphone. Then we put our book aside, answer the question, answer the phone, and with some bad luck we get involved in a number of online conversations. After a full hour of “studying” we have learned nothing. And then we’ll have some shopping to do, we want to go to the gym and by the way we want to see something on tv. We’ll study tomorrow.

The truth is that we want so many things at the same time that we do not achieve any of our goals for today. And we call that “I had no time” or “I am so busy”. This is the reality of multitasking. Switching between different tasks takes an amount of time for any switch, and that is how we become inefficient and ineffective on balance. The real important stuff gets out of sight and we postpone it for a while or indefinitely.

Yes, we can study while listening to music, or we can walk and talk at the same time, but then it Always concerns activities that we do automatic or that do not need our full attention. That is not multitasking, but backgroundtasking. Some people think that while driving a car whatsapp conversations are a backgroundtask, but experiments show that our driving behaviour perceptably deteriorates and that we are a menace on the road.

Can we change this behavioral pattern? Yes, that is possible, but to be fair it is an obstinate and addictive pattern. Try putting your smartphone aside, try to go offline for only half a day, schedule “do not disturb” on your phone and observe how east or difficult that may be. In that mode try studying for half a day, take five-minute breaks for a cup of tea and move around a bit. It will make you effective and you may even remember what you studied. Is it more fun? That depends on your ambitions and on your withdrawal symptoms.