Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Is It Good to Multitask?

Do you multitask? Should you multitask? Does multitasking make you more or less efficient and effective?

For some time I have had my suspicions about the vogue of multitasking. It felt like the therapy world had found a condition it could not treat or cure-- lack of focus and concentration-- and had simply decided to rebrand it.

People were thrilled to discover that they were not just unfocused, but they were really multitasking. So they advertised the fact, made it a badge of pride, and induced others to adopt what has now been shown to be simply a bad habit.

Suspicions have no real value as evidence. Now a scientific study by researchers at Stanford University has demonstrated that multitaskers are inefficient, ineffective, more easily distracted, and less able to ignore trivial information. Link here.

This shows that calling something by another name and making that name connote something valuable does change the nature of the thing. Surely, you can influence behavior by rebranding, but you cannot change reality.

Researcher Clifford Nass noted correctly that since our society seems to encourage multitasking, his study has important social implications.

Rebranding has a long and distinguished history in the therapy culture. In the old days the therapeutic motto could have been: If you can't treat it or cure, call it something else.

Before the advent of Prozac, cognitive therapy, and coaching, therapists had a devil of a time treating depression. Considering that most therapy patients-- according to Hopkins psychologist Jerome Frank-- are suffering from demoralization, thus depression, this was no small shortcoming.

How did therapists address the problem? Simple: they rebranded their depressed patients.

When a young man presented himself as dysfunctional, alienated, and demoralized, therapists would lead him on a journey where he would discover why he felt the way he felt.

This would not cure what ailed him, so treatment success was defined as the realization that his symptoms meant that he was a budding artist looking for the right medium to express his feelings.

For ideological more than therapeutic reasons, classically trained therapists did not entertain the notion that the young man might need some guidance about how to become a functioning member of society.

When other people in the man's life suggested as much, they were roundly denounced for conspiring to repress his creative spirit. Why would they want to repress it? Because it was going to denounce them for being bourgeois sell-outs.

Rebranding did not cure or treat the young man's depression. But it certainly influenced many young people to adopt a less conventional, more rebellious lifestyle.

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