Alright, I’m gonna do my assignment. Today’s the day, I’m gonna get it done. Okay… new word document, opening Chrome, new tab, Facebook, logging in…”Roman is having an OK day, and bought a Coke Zero at the gas station. Raise the roof.”
He got a Coke Zero AGAIN. Ah, that Roman. Incorrigible. Now, what’s my essay on?
Multitasking. What is it? Why do we do it? And what’s all the fuss about it?
Multitasking is engaging in two (or more) tasks simultaneously, like walking and eating (Taylor, 2011), or using your smart phone while you’re on the toilet.
We all do it, and it’s natural, but how’s that different to say… writing a report, answering an email, getting a text, and sending a Snapchat all while listening to music? According to Professor Jim Taylor from the University of San Francisco, multitasking is only possible if at least one of the tasks is so well learned that no focus or thought is necessary to engage with it, and that it involves a different type of brain processing (cue: walking and eating) (Psychology Today, 2011). The latter example however, is not quite that.
Taylor (2011) refers to this as ‘serial tasking’, shifting from one task to another in rapid succession in belief that you’re doing them simultaneously. Thus it leads us to this; we may be filtering out the information before us, even dealing with multiple inputs at once, but are we really paying attention?
Lombrozo (2013) argues that our ability to switch between tasks and access information with minimal effort – thanks to technology – can mask the cognitive costs of redirecting attention and actually processing information to achieve understanding.
My lecturer put this to the test knowing it was only natural for our internet browsers to have a multitude of tabs open. She talked through five points on a presentation and then asked us if we could remember at least two that were said. Of course everyone was listening, but only a handful could even recall one dot point; the one about privacy, simply because she said the word with a British accent and thus was the only thing that really got our attention.
Her point was made. As Dennis McElroy, Associate professor of education and director of technology, Graceland University (2012), suggests, if we want to increase our performance level, we must focus on one task at a time. He says that computer operating systems have had the capability to run simultaneous processes, and since then, we’ve transferred this idea to our brains. But unlike a computer, humans aren’t incapable of being distracted, that it takes mental energy to determine what is important and what is “extraneous noise,” being the reason we sometimes lack focus.
And it’s not just our focus that is lacking. Lombrozo (2013) argues that public display of multitasking can disrupt the learning and performance of others and henceforth create consequences that extend beyond the multitasker themselves; “When your laptop screen features a lively rotation of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google and email, others are bound to notice.” Like when the person in front of me was watching Harry Potter on their laptop, how could I even think about paying attention to the lecturer.
Lombrozo (2013) even suggests that the negative consequences of observing multitasking were greater than those performing the multitasking themselves, because at least in the private space, one could time their multitasking to suit their own needs (2013).
But Chris Stefanski, Associate director of technology, New Jersey (2012), argues that multitasking is in fact important for efficiency because it teaches students how to use analytical and critical-thinking skills. He says that because of the sheer amount of tools and content available, knowing how to multitask is a “vitally important part of being able to handle it all.”
He suggests that modern technology has multitasking embedded into our environment and culture, and as we are all expected to be constantly accessible and connected, we have no choice but to multitask. But – similarly to what McElroy (2012) suggests – what is crucial is developing the analytical and critical thinking needed to be able to identify which of your tasks to work on in a given time, and when to switch between them (Stefanski, 2012).
So in other words asking yourself what’s more important? Cats on the internet or… writing down that lecture note before you miss it?
Let’s just say Stefanski is right is saying our ‘task’ priorities aren’t always on track.
Lombrozo, T. (2013). Stop Multitasking! It’s Distracting Me (And You). [Blog] Cosmos & Culture. Available at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2013/08/19/213439794/stop-multitasking-it-s-for-other-people-s-good [Accessed 15 Sep. 2014].
Stefanski, C, & McElroy, D 2012, ‘Multitasking: Boon or Bane?’, Learning & Leading With Technology, 39, 6, pp. 6-7, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 16 September 2014.
Taylor, J. (2011). Technology: Myth of Multitasking. [Blog] Psychology Today. Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201103/technology-myth-multitasking [Accessed 15 Sep. 2014].