Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Multitasking is a liability, not a skill (a reminder we're not computers)

I recall a job interview in the not-too-distant past when the hiring manager asked me a peculiar question: "How are your multitasking skills?"

I was a bit taken aback.  As a former student who minored in cognitive science (and as someone who dabbles in yoga and meditation), I thought about going into a scientific spiel about the myth of "multitasking skills" and how multitasking is antithetical to mental focus.  Instead, I talked about concentration and how my ability to focus allowed me to complete tasks thoroughly, one at a time.

Well, I didn't get a call back from the hiring manager (which was fine with me), and lately I've heard similar anecdotes from friends and colleagues.  Why are hiring managers asking about "multitasking skills," as if such a skill set even existed?

What "multitasking" means

The concept of "multitasking" originated quite recently.  The very word, in fact, was invented in the 1960s by professionals in computing.  Originally, "multitasking" referred to what computers could do, which was run many programs all at once.  In this context, multitasking was akin to multiprogramming or multiprocessing.

It wasn't until more recently that the field of business management snagged the term and started using it to refer to human activity in the workplace.

And yet, human beings aren't computers.  Computing professionals were right to say that computers multitask.  Business managers were mistaken to think that people multitask in a similar vein.

What "multitasking" doesn't mean

Multitasking is the opposite of concentration.  To concentrate is to focus on one thing (maybe two) at a time.  To multitask is to bounce your attention between multiple things.

The question, then, is this: how well can people multitask?  Thus far, research from psychology, cognitive science, and communication studies gives a unanimous answer: not very wellin fact, we're terrible at it!  What's worse, multitasking can be bad for our mental health.

It's a bit counterintuitive.  In theory, you'd think that juggling multiple tasks at once would save time and effort.  In practice, the opposite happens.

Multitasking impairs focus

This almost goes without saying.  Multitasking is the opposite of concentration, because the former spreads our attention thin over many things, while the latter focuses our attention deeply on one thing (also known as monotasking).

Multitasking leads to mistakes and weakens productivity

Multitasking causes people to be careless and make errors, and switching between tasks makes us complete them more slowly, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as switching costs.

Multitasking kills creativity

People who multitask have difficulty managing their emotions and experience impediments to creative thinking.  (Yogis and Buddhists, of course, have said this for centuries.)

To multitask or not to multitask?

Look, I'm not saying don't ever multitask.  Multitasking is okay for routine things.  For mindless or zoning-out activities, such as cleaning the floor or jogging, I may talk on the phone or listen to podcasts as well.

However, for mindful work that requires attention, care, or imagination, concentration is your ally, and multitasking your Achilles heel.  So don't multitask on the job, when driving in a car, during home improvement projects, or while trying to create art.

We're human beings, not computers.  Let's treat ourselves accordingly.  Unless you're a machine, multitasking is a liability, not a skill.

Postscript: By the way, two of the best mental exercises to train concentration are mindfulness meditation and reading books.  I'd recommend two accessible and fun reads in that light: 10% Happier, by Dan Harris, and Proust and the Squid, by Maryanne Wolf.

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