Monday, July 5, 2010

Is There Something Called Multitasking?

I have never claimed to be a good multitasker. In fact, I am a horrible multitasker. I can generally manage two truly simultaneous tasks if I am only weakly committed to one of them, but that is the limit. The more I learn about multitasking, though, the more I determine that there is no such thing as a good multitasker.

I started thinking about this when I came across a Wall Street Journal article that questioned whether the Internet was making humans more shallow thinkers. The premise is that Internet activity is inherently full of distractions and interruptions, and this does not allow for deep, contemplative thinking. The article then goes into an explanation that people who appear in life to multitask are merely people drawn to constant distraction, and that doing this too much damages the brain's ability to focus.

What's strange is that I, even with the discomfort I have regarding multitasking, frequently find myself attempting to do multiple things at the same time. This happens more now than it used to, and it id definitely enabled through technology that was not available to me earlier in life. I actually find myself rationalizing that I am saving time and reducing stress, though I may be doing the opposite. There are some times when multitasking is useful, but if I am honest with myself I will admit that those instances usually occur when one of the tasks I am performing is truly meaningless. So, if I get more accomplished because I types some emails while dialed into a meeting, that is only because my attention was never really needed in the meeting in the first place.

While many people believe that multitasking improves efficiency because you are accomplishing multiple things at once, multiple studies indicate that multitasking has a negative rather than positive effect on work. As an example, researchers at Stanford found that multitaskers were no better at doing things than anyone else, but they were simply more easily distracted than the rest of the population. They may appear to be doing five things at once, but this is just because those are tasks that are started rather than those that are completed. One of the study's authors went so far as to say, "We kept looking for what multitaskers are better at, and we didn't find it."

A primary disadvantage of multitasking is that it promotes the illusion that people can do two things at once, and nothing could be further from the truth. Research by neurological physiologists and other investigators into the way the brain works confirms (not reveals - it's already been revealed) that the brain is a "one-thing-at-a-time" kind of machine. Even computers are "one-thing-at-a-time" even through you here the word multitasking in context of computers as well.The strength of the brain is in its ability to switch very rapidly from one task to another(so do computers). And because the brain is, in general, pretty good at switching, this gives rise to the illusion that people can do two (or more) things at once. They cannot, and nothing could be further from the truth. As the brain doesn't do two things at once, a driver is actually not in control of his/her vehicle for the time it takes to do use a cell phone or do something else. This creates danger beyond calculation. We'll never really know how many people are killed or injured in auto accidents (huge dollar loss aside) initiated by someone who is driving and "multitasking" on a cell phone or in some other way. Happens every day. It's happening now.

Remember the deadly train collision of a commuter passenger train into a freight train in the Los Angeles area. The engineer was killed, but was texting up to about 20 seconds prior to the crash. He was killed, along with two dozen of his passengers.)This engineer ran red stop lights and "engineered" the collision.

So, if you happen to be wandering by a Starbucks and see someone sipping a coffee, talking on the phone, typing an instant message, reading a book, tapping a foot to some music, and shopping online at the same time, rest assured that he or she is not doing any of it well. If you are that person, you probably haven't gotten this far down in the post to notice anyway.
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