The Question of Attention: To Multitask or Not To Multitask

21 April, 2009

Do you Twitter at work? Do you read your RSS feed while having breakfast? Talk on the phone and respond to emails at the same time? How many tabs do you have open in your internet browser right now? How many applications are running on your computer?

As many of us go about our days, we find our attention being pulled in many directions: family, work, school, friends, hobbies, taking care of our bodies and minds… I’m sure all of these things sound familiar to you. But how to you have time to balance and juggle all of your responsibilities (and even add a little fun and entertainment into the mix)?

Many people answer: I multitask. We all do it. But should we?

For someone like me whose mind tends to wander, multitasking can make or break my day and, ultimately, my career. I’m certain that there are times when ‘multitasking’ is appropriate in the sense that we should write down an idea to come back to later or that we should take a break from working on one project to work on another and come back to the first later. I am not convinced that my habit of working on more than one task simultaneously is such a great idea. After all, the allure of getting two things (or more!) done at once is hard to resist!

It used to be the case that employers wanted new hires who could multitask and even asked for the skill specifically. However, if you really do your homework, ‘multitasking’ isn’t really what employers (or anyone else) should be after. Why? Let’s take a look at the definition of the term and its etymology.

Following is the entry for multitasking in the Mirriam-Webster online dictionary:

definition of 'multitasking' from Mirriam-Webster online dictionary

definition of ‘multitasking’ from Mirriam-Webster online dictionary

Note that the first definition is specific to that of a computer performing more than one task simultaneously. Before computers, this concept had never been conceived. Now, in the Golden Age of computers and online media, it’s almost unheard of to NOT multitask, at the very least in the original sense of running more than one program on a computer.

It’s hard to remember sometimes, but humans are not computers and vice versa and there are reasons why two have yet to converge into one entity (though sometimes it does seem like our online identities can shape our ‘real life’ identities perhaps more than even we like or expect). Humans are imperfect and computers are only as intelligent as their programmers. But when it comes to multitasking, computers excel at processing more than one thing at a time and in running multiple programs, while humans tend to be most effective (read: accurate and precise) when their attention is not divided in ten different directions at once. The New York Times confirms that Multitasking Can Make You Lose… Focus, and the APA (American Psychological Association) has been claiming this very fact since 2001, saying that Shifting Mental Gears Costs Time.

So, while multitasking may have that allure, its promise to get things done faster and more effectively really holds no water. For the sake of my own health and sanity, the integrity of my work, and the sake of my personal relationships, I am making a commitment to leave behind the multitasking. Say what you will about how you can do a handful of things at once, but I would rather excel slowly at one thing at a time than find myself mediocre at everything I do.

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