Lots of us get caught up in trying to multitask everyday. The term has become very commonplace. People even brag about their ability to multitask. But, many business leaders are starting to realize that our minds don’t really “multitask” the way me might imagine they do. We really only do one thing at a time. Some people might be more adept at “shifting gears” more quickly than others are. But, in reality, they still only work on one thing at a time. In fact, the definition of multitasking has been altered in recent years to indicate someone “appearing” to handle more than one task at a time.
Once, in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a woman kissed the android Data. She then asked him what he had been thinking about at that particular moment as they kissed. He replied:
“In that particular moment, I was reconfiguring the warp field parameters, analyzing the collected works of Charles Dickens, calculating the maximum pressure I could safely apply to your lips, considering a new food supplement for [his cat] Spot…”
Data was multitasking. We don’t do that. Sure, we can engage in one activity (kissing) while thinking of another (NCAA basketball tournament brackets). But, we aren’t thinking of more than that at any given moment. Our attention can only sustain so much.
A person on a riding mower, listening to a foreign language learning podcast through headphones, may appear to be multitasking. The mowing is almost on autopilot, subconscious. But, the moment the mowing task requires more attention (an object is seen in the yard, for example) his attention is diverted from the podcast. He may get back to it fast enough to not miss a beat. But, it was a false sense of multitasking.
Efficiency experts and managers pay attention to this. Work environments and assignments have to be set up to work with how the human mind actually operates, rather than some pop culture notion of multitasking. Otherwise, business does not get done in a productive manner. The claim of being able to multitask has grown in popularity as employees try to distinguish themselves as skilled and worth promoting (or, in this economy, hiring in the first place). A good manager pays attention to what an employee is actually capable of doing.
In my work environment, it is not unusual for other people around me to talk, necessarily. I work best in silence. So, I commonly wear headphones with music playing. (I dig Spotify.) The music is handled much more easily by my subconscious (like the mowing, above) than conversation is. It is a great trade because I can focus and get more done.
In an upcoming PBS program, Dr. Adam Gazzaley addresses multitasking and how the human mind deals with distractions. The program is called The Distracted Mind.
From the Santa Fe Productions website:
The Distracted Mind with Dr. Adam Gazzaley explores the impact that multi-tasking has on our safety, our memory, our education, our careers and our personal lives. Most importantly, The Distracted Mind tells us what we can do to improve our attentional abilities and our focus as we age, and as media continues to dominate our landscape. From changing our behaviors, to literally changing our brains, Dr. Gazzaley shares information you need to survive and thrive in the information age. Hosted by renowned neuroscientist and M.D., Ph.D., Dr. Adam Gazzaley, The Distracted Mind delves deeply into attention, distraction and the myth of multi-tasking and how to use the latest research to possibly improve our skills and abilities at any point during our lives. While the brain can seem almost boundless in its potential, it has limitations, such as processing speed, attentional limitations, working memory limitations and sensitivity to interference, which can be both internal and external.