One step at a time

April 28, 2014 12:00 am | Updated May 21, 2016 01:41 pm IST

Does multitasking delude us into thinking we are being more efficient?

You return home from college with your head buzzing with all the things you need to get done. Being the class monitor, you have to coordinate the logistics of the upcoming class picnic. So you quickly post a note on your Facebook page asking your friends to sign up. Before you start working on your Chemistry record book, you plug your iPod into your ears to listen to the song your friends were discussing this morning. As you start recording your observations of the Chemistry experiment, your cell phone beeps. Your friend sends an SMS asking whether you are coming for tuition. You respond and then get back to your record book. Within a few minutes, your mom calls saying that she will be late. While talking to her, you quickly check your Facebook page for updates. Twenty-four friends have responded. You quickly send another message on What’sApp asking about the picnic. You also text your friends saying the song is really cool. You then get back to writing your Chemistry observations.

Sounds familiar? In today’s wired world, we all engage in some form of multitasking, often without realising it. How many of us are guilty of reading an SMS while we are conversing with someone else? Or, of checking Facebook updates during a boring lecture or shooting off a quick email while wolfing down the breakfast. And, despite warnings to the contrary, people continue to talk on their phones while driving, even on two-wheelers.

Switching and flitting

How would you characterise the work habits of those who juggle multiple tasks with relative ease? Efficient, competent and productive? Or disorganised, disordered and sub-optimal? We generally think of someone who does myriad jobs as being very productive. After all, time is a scarce resource and we would like to pack in as much as possible into every minute. But contrary to popular belief, research suggests that multitasking may not be the best way to go about accomplishing our goals. In fact, toggling between tasks actually compromises productivity rather than promoting it.

In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance , Professors David Meyer and Jeffrey Evans studied what happens when people switch between two tasks, such as doing math sums and categorising geometric shapes. They found that subjects lost time when they had to switch between tasks, and it took them longer to make the switch if the task was more complex or less familiar. When we flit from task to task, our brains have to not only adjust to the fact that we are making the switch, but also activate the demands of the new task. Thus, as we go back and forth between tasks, we may end up spending more time on them as opposed to completing one job at a time.

Performance compromised

Communications specialist Clifford Nass of Stanford University and his colleagues, compared the cognitive performance of those who multitask on electronic media regularly versus those who do not. In all three experiments, the performance of high multitaskers was compromised compared to their serially focused peers. Thus, students who multitask often were poorer at ignoring irrelevant stimuli and were worse at remembering which items were repeated on a test. Further, to the surprise of the researchers, the multitaskers were beaten even on a task that required switching between two sets of stimuli. Ironically, chronic multitaskers were worse than others even at multitasking! As Nass bluntly states in an interview in Stanford Report , “Everything distracts them.”

Superficial gratification

Even as you juggle between tasks, and flit from screen to screen, do you find that your ability to pay attention for a sustained period of time is diminishing faster than you would dare admit? If you answered yes, you are part of a growing tribe of Netizens who find it to difficult to concentrate on a single task. Author Nicholas Carr aptly captures this phenomenon when he writes in his book, The Shallows , “the Internet seizes our attention only to scatter it.” The longer we shift and shuffle between Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail and cricket scores, our brains get used to the instant but superficial gratification that the Internet provides. While every generation is more tech-savvy than the previous one, and is thus more prone to multitask earlier in their development, we may gradually lose other essential life skills like the ability to concentrate, deliberate and reflect. MIT professor Sherry Turkle cautions us in her book, Alone Together , that multitasking provides us with a ‘high’ that deludes us into thinking we are being more efficient.

And, finally, for those daring souls who swear that talking on their mobiles is not an impediment to driving, the findings of Professor Brian Scholl and his colleagues will hopefully deter them from this highly unsafe practice. In an experiment, they found that those who spoke on their mobiles while performing a task missed seeing an unexpected object in 90 per cent of instances compared to 30 per cent for those who were not talking on a mobile. In the interests of both safety and efficiency, we need to curb our multitasking instincts. Slow and steady is better than frenzied.

The author is director, PRAYATNA.

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