Multitasking and Productivity
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
Much has been written about the pros and cons of multitasking and those on both the pro side and the con side cite studies that support their notions. Both sides have excellent evidence and reasoning to support their stance. Both sides are right. Multitasking can be done and it is efficient and productive. Multitasking is impossible and dangerous to attempt.
Actually, it all depends on what you call multitasking. If you say that it is the ability to split consciousness and focus between two or more functions simultaneously, then the cons are right, you can’t do that. If you say that it is the ability to switch your focus between two tasks or functions while attempting to accomplish both at the same time, then both the pros and cons are right, you can do that with some activities sometimes. And, if you say that multitasking is simply finding ways to accomplish two or more tasks at the same time, then the pros are right, because you are already doing that everyday.
While I write this, I have coffee brewing, English muffins toasting, and I’m holding a yoga pose. Later, I’ll spend 45 minutes on a stationary bike while listening to a lecture from a course I got from The Teaching Company’s Great Courses collection (a company I highly recommend.) If I go somewhere that I know I might have to wait for a while (standing in line, waiting for a dental appointment), I’ll take a book and/or a pad of paper, so I can get some work done. Productive, efficient and simultaneous.
There are some things you can’t do without multitasking. For example, cooking a meal requires multitasking. Driving a car is multitasking in and of itself -- you must not only perform the complex physical acts of the driving itself, but must also pay attention to your planned route, other drivers, road hazards, traffic signs and signals, pedestrians and so forth, all while keeping in mind the rules of the road. Also consider how you would efficiently keep house if you couldn’t multitask. Don’t you have a load of clothes in the washer and one in the dryer while you are vacuuming and the dishwasher is running? Much multitasking is done through the automation of both process and technology.
The ability to multitask in the sense of switching focus between two or more tasks varies with individual interests, training, experience and even age and gender. So, you have to determine for yourself what you can do and what simply doesn’t work. There are some activities that most of us can multitask to a reasonable degree. Teens really can listen to music and do their homework at the same time. Artists can paint and watch T.V. at the same time. Most folks can read and watch T.V. at the same time (especially useful during interminable chase scenes that you can’t fast forward.)
The simple answer to the multitasking question is that you cannot split your conscious focus, you can only switch it between tasks. The greater the focus required, the more single-tasking is necessary. But there are many tasks with which you can switch focus with varying degrees of efficiency. And there are many tasks that require no switching of focus, just automation.
So, yes, you can multitask. You can use it to create greater efficiency and productivity. You can plan it, train it and practice it.
And finally, we come to the question everyone asks about multitasking -- what about driving and cell phones? Please. You already know the answer. As I already mentioned, in driving you are already stretched to the limit by multitasking. A cell phone is a dangerous, dangerous distraction. And the biggest danger is that most people don’t sense the danger. An interesting phenomenon that arises in studies about distractions in driving is that the drivers feel in control. They do not feel that they are distracted. So they don’t believe they are distracted until after the accident -- if they even will admit it then. Unfortunately, feeling is believing.