Video: The myth of multi-tasking

By Bob Faw Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/12/2006 7:09:02 PM ET 2006-10-12T23:09:02

For Nikki Hyatt, there's never enough time to monitor the computer, send e-mails, field queries, schedule appointments — she’s doing it all virtually simultaneously. They call it "multi-tasking."

"I'm sure there's a limit, but you just try to juggle them all, if you can," says Hyatt, who works as a receptionist and administrative coordinator.

Juggling them all in the modeling department of a design company has turned Rich Cicarelli into a workplace whirling dervish.

"I'm always thinking about two or three things at a time," says Cicarelli, who manages the department.

Aren't we all?

Fifty-four percent of employees in one survey confess that while on the phone, they read e-mail. Eleven percent say they write to-do lists while in meetings.

"I mean, I often describe myself as the guy on the stage, spinning the plates," says Tom Burchard, vice president of the brand group. "And it feels like that some days."

But researchers have found that there are limits. When it comes to multi-tasking, the human brain can do only so much.

Like Rich Cicarelli, who fixes breakfast while reading his e-mails.

"And all of a sudden, I see smoke billowing out of the toaster," says Cicarelli. "And it was because I had too many things going on."

In labs that detect just how much the brain can process, researchers are finding that when you multi-task, your mouth may be moving but often your brain is somewhere else.

"One thing that definitely happens when you start overlapping tasks is even if your performance doesn't suffer, your memory suffers," says Hal Pashler, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. "If you talk on the cell phone and drive to work, you don't crash the car, but you may forget where you parked it."

So we complain: 45 percent in one study feel they're expected to do too much at once.

"It's challenging to juggle all of these things and get them done," says Cicarelli. "And when you get them all done, it's a great feeling."

Even on days when the toast goes up in smoke.

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