The illusion of multitasking

Yesterday I went through the drive-thru of a local fast food chain. The young lady manning the register asked for my order, so I started giving it to her. She asked me to pause for a second, and when she resumed she repeated the first part of my order back to me. She had it completely wrong. This happens to me all the time in the drive-thru, which is why I typically avoid them at all cost. Yesterday I made an exception and instantly regretted it.

People working drive-thru windows at fast food joints typically try to multitask, i.e. take an order from one person while trying to put an order together for another, and so on. In my experience this usually results in what happened to me yesterday. Frequently I have to repeat part, if not all, of my order. I find it quite irritating.

Multitasking is a myth, plain and simple. People do not have the mental capacity to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. Don’t take my word for it. There’s plenty of evidence to back up my claim.

Christopher Chabris, PhD is a professor, research psychologist, and coauthor of the best-selling book The Invisible Gorilla. His research focuses on two main areas: how people differ from one another in mental abilities and patterns of behavior, and how cognitive illusions affect our decisions. He has published papers on a diverse array of topics, including human intelligence, beauty and the brain, face recognition, the Mozart effect, group performance, and visual cognition. He was also the keynote speaker at the unSUMMIT that I attended last week. The presentation was fantastic.

According to Dr. Chabris everyone thinks they can multitask, but very few can. His research estimates that a mere 2.5% of people can “do ok as a multitasker”. Unfortunately his research has demonstrated that everyone thinks they can multitask, and those that consider themselves true multitaskers tend to do the worst in experiments that require one’s attention.

Everything that Dr. Chabris spoke about applies to pharmacy, but I found two things particularly interesting:

  • Post completion errors – this is when someone forgets to complete the last step of a process. Examples include leaving an original paper on a copy machine, or in healthcare, when someone leaves the guide wire from a PICC insertion in place. Even when people are told they forgot the final step they often can’t figure out what went wrong. Dr. Chabris refers to this as “satisfaction of search”, i.e. you see what you expect to see. This type of thing happens all the time in pharmacy practice, especially during the distribution process and the IV room.
  • “Illusion of attention” – this is when people think they can pay attention to multiple things at once. He refers to this as an “everyday illusion”, of which multitasking is a prime example. These misconceptions are hard to overcome and systematically wrong. How many times have you witnessed a pharmacist or pharmacy technician trying to do more than one thing at a time – talk on the phone while filling a script, retrieve tablets from a “Baker cell” while on the phone, etc? Happens all the time.

Overall the presentation was solid and the information valuable. I recommend taking a look at Dr. Chabris’ work. The concepts can be applied both directly and indirectly to errors that occur in the pharmacy.

2 thoughts on “The illusion of multitasking”

  1. I stopped by McDonald’s on the way to the office the other day, and found that they’d removed the whole speaker/microphone box – now the first window is for ordering/paying a real person. I thought that the box had broken or vandalized enough that they’d just given up on it. Given this post, I now wonder if this is more of the reason – fewer incorrect orders and an overall happier experience for drive-through customers.

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