Friday, April 29, 2016

To hell with multitasking!

Remember this old nursery rhyme?
Work while you work,
play while you play;
this is the way
to be happy each day.
all that you do,
do with your might;
things done by halves
are never done right.
Perhaps that rhyme is no longer taught.  After all, we live in a world in which everybody seems to be multitasking all the time.  Students are eating and texting while supposedly learning.  People are texting and talking while driving.  And then there is me, who can barely do one thing at a time.

I have never believed in the multitasking hype.  I have always suspected that with the exception of a few gifted people, the rest of us are not wired to do a gazillion things all at once.  We will be better off checking off one thing after another.

So, naturally, I was drawn to this essay, which wants us to get (re)acquainted with "monotasking":
Doing one thing at a time isn’t a new idea.
Indeed, multitasking, that bulwark of anemic résumés everywhere, has come under fire in recent years. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that interruptions as brief as two to three seconds — which is to say, less than the amount of time it would take you to toggle from this article to your email and back again — were enough to double the number of errors participants made in an assigned task.
Earlier research out of Stanford revealed that self-identified “high media multitaskers” are actually more easily distracted than those who limit their time toggling.
So, in layman’s terms, by doing more you’re getting less done.
Huh?  They need to do research to tell me this?  If the multitaskers are the ones who need to be informed about this, will the message get through to them if they read the essay while listening to music even as they are driving and doing brain surgery at the same time? ;)
Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, lecturer at Stanford and the author of “The Willpower Instinct,” believes that monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced.” She said: “It’s an important ability and a form of self-awareness as opposed to a cognitive limitation.”
Monotasking needs to be practiced only because we have been brainwashed to think that multitasking is the way to go.  Speaking of brainwashing:
As much as people would like to believe otherwise, humans have finite neural resources that are depleted every time we switch between tasks, which, especially for those who work online, Ms. Zomorodi said, can happen upward of 400 times a day, according to a 2016 University of California, Irvine study. “That’s why you feel tired at the end of the day,” she said. “You’ve used them all up.”
The term “brain dead” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
So, can you give us an example of "brain dead"?
“Attention is one way your brain decides, ‘Is this interesting? Is this worthwhile? Is this fun?’ ”
It’s the reason television shows we tweet through feel tiresome and books we pick up and put down and pick up again never seem to end. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted from a particular activity, the more we feel the need to be distracted. Paying attention pays dividends.
Paying attention pays dividends. Hmmm ... isn't that a simple thing that even my barely educated grandmothers told us?  

But, it is not merely about homework or economic productivity.  There is something more important and profound that is lost when we are distracted all the time: the loss of empathy, which I often blog about.
“Research shows that just having a phone on the table is sufficiently distracting to reduce empathy and rapport between two people who are in conversation”
So, what can people begin to do?
Monotasking can also be as simple as having a conversation.
“Practice how you listen to people,” Ms. McGonigal said. “Put down anything that’s in your hands and turn all of your attentional channels to the person who is talking. You should be looking at them, listening to them, and your body should be turned to them. If you want to see a benefit from monotasking, if you want to have any kind of social rapport or influence on someone, that’s the place to start. That’s where you’ll see the biggest payoff.”
If only they are paying attention to all these, right?


Ramesh said...

I shall henceforth monotask. Focus solely on arguing against whatever is stated in this blog :)

Mike Hoth said...

I was going to respond to this, but I got distracted by the Chicago Cubs and then the Portland Trailblazers. I suppose I too am no multitasker!

Sriram Khé said...

Ah, yes, we men try our best to be funny ;)
"try" is the operative word ... muahahahaha

Anne in Salem said...

Are the detrimental aspects of multitasking applicable only to mental multitasking? As in, does trying to solve a work problem while weeding the garden or washing dishes detract from the thought process, the thoroughness of the chore or both? I know many people who maintain friendships by jogging together. Isn't that multitasking? What about parenting? We have to multitask to survive, though usually it is physical multitasking. Kids won't abide mental multitasking from a parent.

I love the word monotasking. I'm going to try it this week and see if I notice a difference at work. Email is my biggest challenge.

Sriram Khé said...

The multitasking debates are usually not about the contexts of dishwashing or weeding--after all, those are to quite some extent distractions from what our lives are mostly about. And usually we refer to contexts like work, studying, ...
what interests me most is when people think they are multitasking in their non-work lives, which is where we truly are being our human selves, and this is where I think people are increasingly failing to be human. You refer to one of those when you write "Kids won't abide mental multitasking from a parent" ...

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