Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Should You Multitask?

Among the gross disadvantages of contemporary therapy is the belief that if we think it, it is true. If we feel that we are working well and are being totally productive, then we are working well and are being totally productive. If we believe that we are accomplishing all that needs to be accomplished, and then some, we are effectively doing a great job. 

Which brings us to multitasking. We have been here before and we have, to our credit, warned against thinking that you or I can do more than one thing at a time and do it well. 

Obviously, multitasking is a fad. It arose from the unholy amalgam of business and psychology. It has persuaded people that they can do their jobs, care for their children, keep up their homes-- and do it all well.

If you multitask you will not only do it all, but you will have it all. One suspects that the culture started touting the virtue of multitasking in order to support the feminist project-- the one that says that women can have it all. By now many feminists have rejected this Siren Song, but still, what with remote work, more than a few still believe that they can work from home, care for their children and do their jobs. And, that they can do all of them effectively.

Now, one Hannah Rose has studied the studies and reports that multitasking does not work. (via Maggie’s Farm) You cannot work as effectively when you are distracted and when you lose focus. You might think that you are being productive, but, in truth, you are not. As I said, thinking does not make it so.

So, it’s time to return to single tasking. And, by the by, it is also good to restore something like the division of household labor, wherein each spouse has different areas of responsibility.

She explains some of the research:

Researchers Kevin Madore and Anthony Wagner investigated what happens to the brain when trying to handle more than one task at a time. They found that “the human mind and brain lack the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously.”

That’s why multitasking leads to decrements in performance when compared to performing tasks one at a time. Furthermore, it is worrying that those who multitask often inaccurately consider their efforts to be effective, as studies have demonstrated that multitasking leads to an over-inflated belief in one’s own ability to do so. Not only are we bad at multitasking, but we can’t seem to be able to see it.

I encourage you to pay special attention to the last two sentences.

She continues:

However, in most cases, research shows that single-tasking is the most efficient way of working, as it avoids switching costs and conserves energy that would be expended by mentally juggling multiple competing tasks.

As for the research, Rose reports:

In 2016, an analysis of 49 studies found that multitasking negatively impacted cognitive outcomes. For young adults in education, multitasking, such as studying and texting, was found to reduce educational achievement and increase the amount of time it took to complete homework.

Students who multitasked in class failed to offset the damage done to their final grades, even if they put in additional hours of study at home to try to make up for it. It is therefore difficult to combat the damage caused by multitasking. In contrast, single-tasking can help you meet your targets more efficiently.

By consciously blocking out distractions, you counteract the stop-start nature of task-switching and instead reach a flow state. This ensures you can focus solely on the current brief without interruption, leading to increased productivity in a shorter space of time.

Focusing on one task can, surprisingly, boost creativity. Whereas multitasking creates a constant stream of distraction, the tedium of focusing on a single task gives your brain the space it needs to explore new paths that you might otherwise not have considered

She concludes:

By creating an environment free from distractions, using techniques to boost your focus and incorporating regular breaks, you are likely to become more efficient and ultimately more successful.


Ares Olympus said...

Surely this is true in many contexts, but its also true that some tasks take mental attention, and some tasks can be run on autopilot most of the time.

For example, you can drive a car and listen to the radio at the same time. You eyes are focused on the road and your body can react to a curving road, and be aware of obstacles without being immediately aware, and only when something moves in an unexpected way does your attention get pulled 100% to the car. So your attention may be 90% on a good program on the radio, and a car swerves in front of you, revealing debris they're avoiding, and you must also avoid. And once the danger passed, and your nerves calm, you'll have NO IDEA what they were saying on the radio for the last 30 seconds, but it doesn't matter too much usually, so no real loss. And driving for hours, not really challenging you makes it easy to get sleepy, so sometimes I'd try reciting the alphabet backwards a few times to wake up my mind, and it might be just moving my focus away from the road helps too. Of course if you're a race car driver going 120mph, with others close around you, and need to make quick decisions to exploit a gap, or avoid disaster, that's probably plenty challenging by itself.

Maybe we shouldn't include autopilot attention as a part of multitasking? Or perhaps the problem with multitasking is that it can become addictive, so we say can't handle quiet, always need tour mind stimulated, then you lose "mindfulness", an ability to make decisions with awareness, instead always choosing what is stimulating and feels good rather than what is productive and necessary.

And on the opposite side, meditation SEEMS unstimulating, and unproductive, and it could be part of the discipline in focus includes learning how to quiet unwanted thoughts when you need to.

Anyway, we can say it takes discipline to NOT multitask when your mind is bored, and probably it is better to set time goals, and take regular breaks, than let your mind distract from a task at hand.

Anonymous said...

Functional MRI (which shows what areas of the brain are activated at what time) proved some years ago that no one multitasks. Multitasking is just switching back and forth between incompleted tasks rather than completing one task and moving to the next. It is more efficient not to multitask when possible, but sometimes it is not possible. When software engineers were given individual offices with doors they could close, they were much more productive than in a large open office.

David Foster said...

It's true that multitasking (which is really task switching, except where some of the tasks are done totally at the subconscious level) imposes a switching overhead cost. But there are plenty of situations where it can't be avoided. For example:

--You're a pilot, getting ready for an approach to an airport. You are currently performing the task of reviewing your approach charts while listening to the airport information recording on the radio to get current weather and runways in use. At that precise time, air traffic control asks you to switch to a new frequency and call the new controller. You've also been descending to a new altitude, and need to level off at that altitude.

--You're a business executive, working on next year's budget. One of your direct reports comes in and says she needs to talk to you immediately about an employee problem--says it can't wait. You sigh, set the budget aside, and ask her to site down. Then your exec assistant comes in and says that a very large customer is on the line and he's very upset about something.

Christopher B said...

Definitions matter. What Rose is talking about, as expressed in her conclusion, is *distractions*, not background tasks or overlapping processes that must be completed in a specific timeframe. In other words these are tasks that could be deferred or assigned to another person to ensure focus on a single task.