The Multi-Tasking Myth

Added on Aug 28, 2015

Hospital Safety Procedures

Recently, I opened a Microsoft Word document that was a part of a big project I had been working on for some time. I last worked on the document several days before-hand and was dismayed to find most of the content missing – only one of the four pages I had drafted was there! At first, I hoped I might have saved it under a different name, but a search of my files showed this was not the case. I thought back to the day I was working on the project and, with a sinking heart realized what had happened. I had a number of documents opened at the same time, was checking emails, talking on the phone and I must have closed the document without saving the changes - even clicking past the automatic warning designed to prevent just such a mistake, see inset right.

Unfortunately, I fell victim to a common human error – believing that I could increase my efficiency by multi-tasking. According to Dr. Gregory Jantz1, functional magnetic resonance imaging has demonstrated that our brains can actually do two things at once, provided that the functions do not require the same areas of the brain. This explains why listening to music (auditory processing) does not impede your ability to read (visual processing) at the same time. However, when we ask our brain to focus on two or more similar tasks – we force our brain to switch-task. Switch-tasking causes our brain to stop and start each task, which is less efficient, requires more time instead of saving time, and makes us prone to error.

The implications of switch-tasking in healthcare are significant. Imagine the busy nurse or hospitalist managing the care of multiple patients, or the surgeon doing back-to-back cases while worrying about making her 2 pm office hours. Add stress, fatigue, and time pressures and you have a real recipe for disaster.

Of course, the simple cure for preventing errors caused by switch-tasking is don’t do it. Type “mindfulness” into Google and you will get 28 million hints and suggestions for managing your scarce attentional resources. In fact, our safety behaviors and error prevention toolboxes include potential strategies like focusing on task and S.T.A.R. (stop, think, act, review). Yet, with all of these strategies and tools this is much easier said than done. Two things to keep in mind:

  • 1) While not all multi-tasking is bad (like listening to music might increase the intensity of a workout), some multi-tasking can be very bad and a significant risk to health and safety, like texting while driving or calculating drug dosages while talking to a colleague.

  • 2) Kerry Johnson, HPI Founding Partner, is fond of saying: “Stupidity ought to be painful.” I wish my computer would have jumped up and bit me before I closed my project before saving it! The next time I am tempted to work on multiple documents at the same time, I will remember the two hours it took me to recreate the missing pages of my project, and will rethink my strategy. In healthcare, sharing lessons learned from safety events due to a lack of mindfulness can accomplish the same purpose.