Last week, multi-tasking was back in the news, this time covered by The New Atlantis: The Myth of Multitasking.
The conclusion is the same as always: multitasking is bad and you are better off doing one thing at a time.
The one argument that is absolutely correct is that multitasking is less efficient than only working on a single task at a time until it is completed. Every time you switch tasks, you cause a delay because you interrupt your train of thought. If I stop writing a report to talk to someone, when I return to the report it will take a few seconds (if not minutes) to get back on track. That’s a cost.
But nobody seems to talk about the negative effects of singletasking. If I only ever did one task at a time, through to completion, that one task would benefit by being completed faster than otherwise. Every other aspect of my life and work would suffer. I would probably lose weight because I would have to skip a few meals if the task takes longer than a few hours (OK, I’d call that a benefit). I’d probably lose friends, colleagues and customers because they would think I never ever ever return phone calls or emails (as opposed to just having a rubbish ping quotient). I’d miss the breaking news that makes my current task redundant (stick that in your economic calculations – stopping now would be more efficient than continuing with something that doesn’t need to be done.) I’d die because I would stop breathing and my heart would forget to beat. Oh, do these anti-multitasking studies forget the small point that being alive is to multitask constantly. Thank goodness we’re good at it!
Yes, there are times when focusing on a single task is the best course of action. That’s why our subconscious kindly takes care of the essential multitasking we need. If I’m on the operating table in hospital, I want the surgeon’s full attention. If I am sat in college, 100% focused on what the lecturer is saying, I will perform better than my peers in the final exams. They will probably beat me to the job by having a better social network! (It’s not just about what you know…) If I’ve got a deadline to meet, Twitter just isn’t that important. As with most things in life, it’s about balance and context. Not simply that one is good and the other is bad.
The biggest concern about multitasking seems to be that it damages how you learn. All I know is that when the subject of learning is interesting and engaging, everything else just disappears into the background and time flies by without you noticing. Ask any kid playing on their games console. We’re also pretty good at singletasking, when we need or want to be.
To see the other side of the Myth of Multitasking, here’s an old blog post that covers some balancing research: Attention Span Myths.