Thursday, January 30, 2014

A look at multitasking

To a certain degree we all multitask as we go about our daily lives, whether it’s in school, work, leisure, or other activities. It seems that over the last five years or so an increasing amount of attention has been paid to the topic of multitasking, with most being rather critical of it. Multitasking does indeed have its drawbacks if it’s engaged in unnecessarily, which is all too often the case. However, it’s not always bad and it has advantages when done appropriately.

The ability and propensity to multitask is hardwired into our brains. Take for example physical action and talking. In the past small groups of people who could successfully vocally communicate while hunting were certainly more successful than those who could not. Multitasking’s advantages certainly extend to today’s world too; listening to music while exercising comes to mind.

For a moment imagine you have a steady stream of water coming out of a garden hose that you are using to water a tree. After watering you move on to watering a patch of grass but this time you use a sprayer which causes the water to sprinkle over a wide area. You have access to a limited stream of water and you are allocating it in an effective way to accomplish your job. But let’s say you decide you want to water a very large patch of grass. So, you adjust the sprayer to its max spread setting and some water is spread out but eventually it malfunctions and less is released.

Just as you had a limited bandwidth of water in the above illustration you have a limited bandwidth when it comes to thinking, memory, and focus, all of which are intertwined to a certain extent but aren't always used proportionally. For example, you would likely use a greater proportion of your focus bandwidth relative to your thinking bandwidth if you were to engage in a routine project of soldering tiny wires compared to studying for an exam which would relatively tax a high amount of your memorization bandwidth.

Certain tasks lend themselves more to multitasking than others as they tap smaller portions of your respective bandwidths. For instance you’ll likely have no problem with simple and repetitive tasks like the earlier example of listening to music while exercising. This contrasts working on tasks that when combined require high amounts of your bandwidths. Studying while the television is on will probably cause you to be spread too thin and lead to a malfunction of sorts, resulting in reduced productivity.

Many organizations have a culture which promotes multitasking. It’s not always a top-down phenomenon though. Employees often take pride in it. When the worker shows he’s multitasking he intends to signal he’s getting a lot done, putting forth a great deal of effort, and that he has little to no downtime. One common problem though is that this can lead to the misallocation of time as there can be a shift to a less important task. For instance have you ever worked to prepare a document that taps heavily into your thinking and focus reserves and at the same time you are lured into checking emails that pour in your inbox every 20 minutes or so? These emails may have dominated your time and not only that, when you finally switched back over to work on your document it was probably more difficult to reach a state of deep focus where you were your zone, so to speak, because such a state is typically achieved after sustained focus and thought. And it is in this stage where many are at their most insightful and productive.

Ultimately our multitasking habits are dependent on our training and self-talk. For most people, these habits are ingrained to the point where they are almost like muscle memory, that is, they’re done automatically with little to no thought. It is our duty to challenge these mindsets, to analyze our situations and work patterns so that we can consciously determine if multitasking is the best course of action.

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