The One Time You Should Never Multitask

Photo: Nick Bondarev

Our beautiful brains were designed to focus on just one thing at a time—we’re serial taskers, not multitaskers. Most of us know by now that texting while driving is dangerous. But how about the form of vehicular communication that most people deem perfectly safe: hands-free cellphone use?

Studies show that drivers who drive and talk on their cellphones are as impaired as drunken drivers. And interestingly, it doesn’t matter whether the phone is handheld or hands-free. Your attention goes to the conversation no matter what. Driving speed slows and awareness of one’s surroundings diminish, which can lead to increased likelihood of an accident.

This is one wellness trend I'd like to set straight: Tech can support us, but we need to draw boundaries to keep ourselves safe. Not using your phone to chat in the car is one of them. Here's why:

We aren't born multitaskers.

Our brainpower can be mind-blowing, but neuroscientists tell us (as does our practical wisdom) that despite our huge capacity to learn and comprehend, we were not designed to multitask—as we divide our attention between multiple tasks, our efficiency and accuracy fall off precipitously no matter how seemingly simple the tasks are.

Driving is an especially unique challenge because in many respects it’s already multitasking. How many of us have had the experience of not remembering our drive for many miles when we have been deep in thought or engrossed in conversation? How many near misses have we experienced when our attention was diverted for just a second?

Now, throw talking on the phone into the mix. Studies show that our brains prioritize the phone conversation over attention to our environment. This means our responses are delayed, we are less alert, and we are much more apt to make mistakes. It is currently estimated that at least half of all car accidents are related to the distraction of cellphone use, and this is likely an underestimation. This has become a huge public health problem.

We're also pretty bad at accurate judgment (when it comes to ourselves).

To make matters more interesting and complicated, studies from numerous disciplines show we’re really bad at self-assessment of our competency—at most things. And, not only are our self-assessments inaccurate, we consistently overrate it. We think we’re better than we are—at everything!

So, as you might expect from the data, a driver's self-assessment is quite poor. People think they drive just fine while engaging in a phone conversation, even when they are not.

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Multitasking is actually slowing us down.

How about cellphone use in other social settings? The slow inattentive people in the grocery store line or walking down the street all seem to be texting, taking videos, photos, or using their phones in some way. Ignoring the checkout person who is providing a service for you also breeds interpersonal rudeness. I see so many parents talking on their phones in the school pickup line. I personally would rather not miss those precious few moments of transition when our children seem to blurt out what is most important to them as they pile into the car after school.

Furthermore, it’s annoying to be on the other end of the phone when the person I’m talking to is driving or otherwise occupied. People can tell when they don't have your full attention—we're wired to.

In the end, whether driving, shopping, or picking up your kids from school, our divided attention makes us more stressed, less efficient, and we miss out on the important stuff. Our full presence to the task at hand, the conversation, the true connection is compromised by our inability to unplug and do just one thing.

On the flip side, here's how we can use tech to help boost mindfulness—off the road, of course.

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