On Multitasking: Can you Multitask ?

Think-Grow: Multitasking is a huge discussion now… How beneficial is it ? Can it really deliver considerable benefits? a short article on HBR blogs discusses a negative point of view on multitasking and how it can actually reduce personal effectiveness.

Based on over a half-century of cognitive science and more recent studies on multitasking, we know that multitaskers do less and miss information. It takes time (an average of 15 minutes) to re-orient to a primary task after a distraction such as an email. Efficiency can drop by as much as 40%. Long-term memory suffers and creativity — a skill associated with keeping in mind multiple, less common, associations — is reduced.

Actually, the article claims that multitasking does not exist, at least not as we think about it. We instead switch tasks. Our brain chooses which information to process. For example, if you listen to speech, your visual cortex becomes less active.

Then, When you talk on the phone to a client and work on your computer at the same time, you literally hear less of what the client is saying.

But… Why do we do it then ?

We tend to respond strongly to social messaging, verbal or non-verbal. Knowing and improving our status, expanding awareness of our group, is important to us, and as a result information that helps us do that is often processed automatically, no matter what we are trying to focus on.

Remote distractions, the ones aided by technology, often are unaware of current demands on us. People calling you at work, send you emails, or firing off texts can’t see how busy you are with your current task. Nor can Twitter feeds or email alerts. As a result, every communication is an important one that interrupts you.

Also, we crave access to more information because it makes us comfortable. People tend to search for information that confirms what they already believe. Multiple sources of confirmation can increase our confidence in our choices. But Paradoxically, more information also leads to discomfort, because some of it might be conflicting. As a result, we then search for more confirmatory information.

What can we do about it?

Technological demands are here to stay. How to avoid overload?

Here are the Recommendations:

  1. Make an effort to do tasks one at a time & stick with one item until completion whenever possible. If attention starts to wane (typically after about 18 minutes), you can switch to a new task, but take a moment to leave yourself a note about where you were with the first one. Give the new task your full attention, again for as long as you can.
  2. Know when to close your door. Before, people did this when they had to work hard on something. Doing the same thing to the different electronic interruptions is probably even more important if you want to be productive and creative. Set aside time when people know you are going to focus.
  3. Admit that not all information is useful. Determine which communications are worthy of interrupting you, and what data you should seek out. When doing a Google search, ask yourself if you are just accessing links that confirm what you already believe or those that challenge those beliefs. Similarly, know the difference between social networks, which are likely to confirm your choices and therefore make you feel good, and knowledge networks, which might challenge them, and therefore help you make a better decision.

Other than this article, the discussion on multitasking is quite rich… A study (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4471607.stm) estimated that people being distracted by emails and phone calls (multitasking) suffer drops in their IQs higher than those caused by Marijuana !!! An average multitasking drop of 10 IQ points happened to those people according to the study !

Another study says that the more you multitask, the worse at it you actually get — heavy multitaskers do worse than light multitaskers: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/08/21/0903620106.abstract

Peter Bergman wrote about his multitasking experiences after he decided to stop multitasking for a week and recorded the following results:

First, it was delightful.

Second, I made significant progress on challenging projects

Third, my stress dropped dramatically. (Research shows that multitasking isn’t just inefficient, it’s stressful.)

Fourth, I lost all patience for things I felt were not a good use of my time.

Fifth, I had tremendous patience for things I felt were useful and enjoyable.

Sixth, there was no downside.

How did he say he did it?

“First, the obvious: the best way to avoid interruptions is to turn them off. Often I write at 6 am when there’s nothing to distract me, I disconnect my computer from its wireless connection and turn my phone off. In my car, I leave my phone in the trunk. Drastic? Maybe. But most of us shouldn’t trust ourselves.

Second, the less obvious: Use your loss of patience to your advantage. Create unrealistically short deadlines. Cut all meetings in half. Give yourself a third of the time you think you need to accomplish something.

There’s nothing like a deadline to keep things moving. And when things are moving fast, we can’t help but focus on them. How many people run a race while texting? If you really only have 30 minutes to finish a presentation you thought would take an hour, are you really going to answer an interrupting call?”


This interesting video helps illustrate the concept of multitasking weaknesses to you:

This Article on NPR  (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794) has a detailed discussion on why we are not really multitasking when we think we are, but are rather switching between tasks back and forth. An article on the website of the american psychology association titled “Is Multitasking More Efficient? Shifting Mental Gears Costs Time, Especially When Shifting to Less Familiar Tasks” discusses a number of studies on the time costs incurred by switching through different tasks.


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