Friday, August 15, 2014

Is Multi-tasking Possible?

In the pursuit of increased productivity, we've blindly adopted the notion that our brains can multi-task.  In fact, I have depended on it in the past.  Lucky for us, scientific research reports otherwise, claiming the act of multi-tasking is actually a process of switching our focus back and forth from one task to another.  Studies show multi-tasking decreases productivity because it takes longer for your brain to switch from one thing to another than to simply focus on one thing until completion.   Multi-tasking often results in getting things done, but at the expense of doing all of those things well.  I am constantly reminded of this when I am trying to engage with someone on the phone while doing something else, even tasks as simple as folding laundry.  Either I am folding very poorly and concentrating on the conversation, or I'm mindlessly saying "yeah, uh-huh" while I make sure my t-shirts are neatly aligned.

This 'switchboard' setup effects more than our productivity.  Those who multi-task a lot may find they fail to remember things more often.   Our short-term memory can only process a few things at once - and once the queue is full, nothing else is going to stick around and wait.  As a result, important details start falling through the cracks.

Multi-tasking has even greater costs than a loss of productivity or memory.  We all know that it is difficult to text and drive simultaneously and that some have lost their lives because of it.  Regardless of intent, our full, undivided attention is required for certain things and our brains cannot provide it while we are attempting to do two and three things at a time.  

Yes, we can walk and talk at the same time, listen to music while cooking, maybe dribble a basketball running down the court.  So, multi-tasking is possible.  It all has to do with the level at which our prefrontal cortex is engaged - certain things are like breathing to us, where complex reasoning and planning are not heavily required.  However, when we attempt to write a report and console our friend at the same time - well, just know one of them is going to get shorted.

So perhaps the possibility of multi-tasking rests in determining which is more important:  quality or quantity.  If the quality of the performed tasks are trivial in meaning, by all means do multiple things as once.  However, when quality is essential, we should consider focusing so that we can actually accomplish more. 

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