Tantek multitasking
Image by cackhanded via Flickr

We live in an age of multi-tasking.  As I’m writing this, I have two email programs open, two monitors on my desktop with several windows open,  the news is  on (though it’s turned down low) in the background so I can occasionally look up and digest a couple of headlines.  This, I believe, is how most of us work nowadays.  There’s simply too much going on to concentrate on only one task at a time, right?

But the question is: Does this multitasking mindset affect the quality of our work?  Though I know plenty of people who boast about being able to compose the perfect email while carrying on a telephone conversation and eating their lunch at the same time,  new research says that multi-tasking may lead us nowhere fast!

The notion that multi-tasking delivers benefits has been triggered and sustained by technology marketers and advertisers, in general, who need people to acquire and make use of more products than could ever deliver real value. In fact, according to research conducted by Stanford University professors, Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagner, multitaskers fall short of their non-multitasking peers in three key areas:

  1. Filtering out irrelevant details – In an experiment, the researchers asked participants to ignore certain pieces of data.  Then non-jugglers had no problem following this instruction, while the multitaskers couldn’t filter out this information and, as a result, performed poorly.
  2. Remembering information – Of an experiment asking people to remember a sequence of letters, Ophir said; “The low multitaskers did great.  The high multitaskers were doing worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.”
  3. Switching between tasks – Though this is what multitasking is all about, those who do so regularly have trouble focusing on the purpose and information associated with discreet undertaking.  Said Ophir, “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing.  The can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

The question that comes to mind is whether “chronic” multi-tasking is a symptom of an innate inability to focus, or if people who multi-task too much simply lose their ability to concentrate?

Either way, it seemed like a good idea to shut off the television and logout from my email as I finished writing this, though I’m sure I’ll be tempted to multi-task again in the near future.  Multi-tasking with multiple computer screens is the default way of operating for me and many creative types involved in research, writing, analysing, synthesizing and/or designing.

Where do you stand on multi-tasking?  Is it an important skill to have in today’s fast-paced workplace or is it simply a way of ensuring that we don’t perform up to our full potentials?

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2 responses »

  1. I always wonder how anyone can claim they can “being able to compose the perfect email while carrying on a telephone conversation” since both use the same part of your brain?!?

    The same way you can’t watch 2 tv’s at the same time, your brain just flips back and forth.

    I’m sticking to my opinion that true productive multi-tasking is a myth.

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