Attention Adults: Is Multitasking a Detriment to Our Productivity?
by: Carol Dickson-Carr
A copout answer? I don’t think so. Here’s why:
If studies are correct in implying that women are naturally gifted in multitasking because our corpus callosum (the part of the brain that is the “mediator” of sorts between the left and right hemispheres) is wider than our male counterparts, why wouldn’t women want to capitalize on that gift? On the other hand, there’s the 2001 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology (Rubinstein, Meyers, & Evans) that examines the limitations and time costs of multitasking- particularly when switching between more complex tasks.
Let’s take driving as a practical example. While I doubt anyone would argue the fact that it’s not a good idea to try and manipulate a cell phone while driving, one wonders where we draw the line. Is it the conversation that’s distracting the driver, or is it that both hands need to be on the wheel, or some combination? What about conversations between driver and passenger (so long as they’re amicable and do not produce stress)? Or the radio? Or listening to audio books and courses? After all, I heard Brian Tracy say to make your car a university on wheels! I took that advice to heart in the mid-90s!
If you’re driving somewhere habitually (e.g., to and from work), then your unconscious competence kicks in, which could arguably enable you, for example, to have that pleasant conversation with your passenger or (if you have a headset piece on) a pleasant cell phone conversation. And the radio can be quite benign, says the girl who never drives in silence, regardless of where she’s going!
So while multitasking might not be for everyone, I would argue that it can be beneficial to some when at least one task taps into your unconscious competence (i.e., anything that doesn’t take much conscious thought to do successfully-like breathing!) and does not conflict with another cognitive process. I believe the odds of successfully accomplishing two simultaneous activities can increase without a decrease in productivity in either task if you have a whole brain orientation, rather than one hemisphere being more dominant than the other.
For example, you could combine doing housework, a physical activity that is more than likely ingrained (unconscious competence strikes again!), while learning from audio lessons on your iPod or CD player-a mental activity. I’ve successfully ironed, folded laundry, washed dishes, and gardened, all while learning tons from various and sundry MP3 classes I’ve put on my iPod. A friend of mine just told me his day went by really fast as he painted his new fence (something he’d rather not do) while enjoying Paul Simon‘s latest.
I’ve even learned about entity structuring and asset protection while illustrating the children’s book I wrote and was engaged in both activities with no problems. I believe it was because there was not a cognitive conflict involved.
But you might run into problems with multitasking if you’re trying to carry on a conversation with someone while checking your email, for example. You’re using the same cognition with these two tasks, and as a result neither task gets the full attention it deserves. And the person you’re talking to face to face (or even on the phone) may feel a bit put off.
Some argue that you should start with one task and keep working on it until you’ve finished it. That may be natural for many, but what about those who thrive best by “flitting” between tasks, even if it’s sometimes a purely psychological benefit? Barbara Sher describes these types of people as “scanners.”
In college, when we studied for our exams-especially during finals week–many of us cyclically spent fixed amounts of time on each subject to avoid driving ourselves crazy. And I’ll be the first to admit that instrumental music (jazz or classical) was on while I was studying. My mind would wander in total silence, otherwise. In fact, I’m listening to contemporary jazz as I write this article! Listening to music with words I’m familiar with, however, would pose a problem for me because I would want to sing along.
I’m certainly not arguing against the power of focus, though. Heavens no! The power of focus is responsible for all sorts of wonderful outcomes. We’re often in the flow, have clarity, and lose track of time when the power of focus is doing its job. When I’m really engaged in a wonderfully insightful book, and especially when I’m composing and producing my song ideas, I’m 100% present in that process, and no one had better disturb me while I’m in the throes of that creative outlet!
Then again, notable psychologist, B.F. Skinner believed that many people miss great opportunities when they adhere to finishing a preconceived plan when something unexpectedly interesting comes up. He believed that you should pursue that “something unexpectedly interesting” to see where it takes you in the name of accidental creativity.
Alexander Fleming did it when he discovered penicillin from mold, of all things, that formed when he exposed deadly bacteria he was studying to air. I’ve had many bouts of accidental creativity when I played an unintended chord or musical interval that sounded cooler than what my mind’s ear originally heard.
I’ve often said that no “one size fits all” strategy exists in our approach to getting things done. What works for some people may not work for others. So I encourage you to consider circumstances, intuition, and discernment as criteria to evaluate when deciding whether myopia or multitasking is the best route for you.