Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Downside of Multitasking

Here is another research that points to the downside of multi-tasking. Essentially, the big conclusion is that 'media multitaskers' perform worse when they switch from task to task due to their lack of concentration as they multi-task from one activity to another. The study, led by researchers from Stanford University points out several interesting findings. I have added in sub-phrases (underlined) to aid understanding:
  1. Diminishing Returns: "the more media people use the worse they are at using any media." [My comment: Better know the limits of our multitasking]
  2. Myth of Better Productivity: "The researchers thought people who do a lot of multitasking would be better at it. "But they're not. They're worse. They're much worse," "They couldn't ignore stuff that doesn't matter. They love stuff that doesn't matter," [My comment: Do not deceive ourselves that a few mediocre tasks are better than one excellent job.]
  3. Constant Distraction: "They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing," lead author Eyal Ophir said. "The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds." [My comment: beware that distraction can grow to affect our relationships too.]
  4. Information Accumulation-Driven: "High multitaskers just love more and more information. Their greatest thrill is to get more," [My comment: Aaah. This may be the key to knowing at what point multitasking becomes unhelpful.]
The four points above show the downside of multi-tasking which can be added to my previous observation about the multi-tasking phenomena that seems to be picking up speed in any culture of discontent. You can read my 2007 article entitled "Taking Multi-tasking to task" by clicking the link here.

My Comments
Since the finding was presented at the Proceedings at the National Academy of Sciences (www.pnas.org), it has generated some lively debate. I guess many who object to it cannot accept the results without a vigorous fight. More importantly, it presents a dilemma to those who deem multi-tasking work as absolutely essential to survive in our present age. Without dwelling on the details of the merits or demerits of multi-tasking, I think some wisdom is always needed. The paranoid multi-tasker has to realize his/her limits. This study will be helpful to prevent such perennial life-jugglers from thinking that the solution to every problem is via multi-tasking. Such an attitude will eventually lead to a crash. Remember how a computer slows down or deteriorates in performance when it opens too many windows and processes?

On the other hand, if we fail to optimize the use of our time, it can be a waste of resources. For example, if we are preparing to go to work, brewing coffee and checking the weather report, getting our kids ready for school, and insist on finishing one task before the next, we'll probably be late for work. Our kids will have another late slip from the school principal.

Multi-tasking is something that is a part of our life. I think we can manage our lives better when we understand ourselves and our idiosyncrasies clearer. In other words, it is not multi-tasking or the external circumstances that define our personality and our achievements. It is the reverse. Based on our knowledge of personal strengths and weaknesses, we plan the essential tasks based on what is essential, and what is not. Based on our understanding of the needed resources of our projects, we arrange the requirements accordingly, instead of blindly copying or following others. The main lesson in the Stanford research which I feel is useful is this: It is not the multi-tasking that defines the person. Rather it is the person that ought to plan and do tasks that is consistent with the planned objectives, the available resources and a keen awareness of one's potential as well as limits.

Multi-task, but do it with wisdom and understanding.


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