MULTITASKING – FACT, FICTION, OR FOE?
Summer time and the lead-up to Christmas means different things to different people. For some, it’s a time for relaxing, going to the beach, catching up with friends, taking it easy, and not doing too much. For others, it might feel a bit more chaotic, especially when it’s all happening at once; checking work emails as you elbow your way through crowded shopping malls with fighting kids in tow – already bored with school holidays – while you’re fighting your inner conscience after receiving a text from the in-laws inviting themselves to Christmas lunch. If you’re someone who identifies with the latter group and thinking you’re doing okay despite the myriad of activities crammed into your day, you may consider yourself a ‘multitasker’.
So what does it actually mean to multitask? Is it a real and tangible thing, or is it more of an exaggerated or idealised conception? Loaded questions perhaps, but ask anyone what they think multitasking is and the most likely answer will be, “the ability to do many things at once.” Ask why they multitask, and they’ll probably say, “because I can,” or, “I have to.” Smartphones make it convenient, right? Technology allows it, your boss wants it, and the younger generation are convinced that the bad rap on multitasking is a hoax perpetrated by oldies who just don’t get it. Surely they’re right, right?
Recent research is now confirming that multitasking is more of a falsehood than fact, and that the brain actually doesn’t do things simultaneously as we previously thought or perhaps hoped. Instead, when we attempt to multitask, the brain doesn’t actually do more than one activity at a time, but rather it quickly switches between them. Every time we switch between tasks there is a start-stop-start process that occurs in the brain. So when we try to do different things at once, such as texting, talking, emailing, Facebooking, checking notifications – all while ordering your morning coffee and flagging down the bus to work – the start-stop-start process uses up oxygenated glucose in the brain and actually makes us less efficient, slows us down, and saps our energy. In fact, we lose the ability to focus on any of these tasks properly, and as a result we can make more mistakes and feel tired, stressed, and sometimes angry.
From a biological perspective, the myth of multitasking becomes clearer. As the brain quickly switches from task to task, our stress levels go up. The more switching, the higher the stress level, which results in higher cortisol levels, leaving people irritable, hungry (craving things like sugar and caffeine), and unable to concentrate. Sleep deprivation or broken sleep can also compound the issue. Although cortisol is a natural hormone produced by the body to help deal with our ‘fight or flight’ response, if we have too much of it in our body it can work against us.
“But I can multitask, just watch me…” Well, that might be true to some extent. Indeed, divided attention is possible and can become automatic if tasks are easy or well practiced. But when things get harder, controlled processing is required and our need to concentrate goes up. As cognitive load increases, distraction kicks in and lowers the ability to multitask. Low load tasks, like hanging out the washing while listening to music, are much less taxing than higher load tasks, like checking emails while talking on the phone. Such high load tasks tend to lead to a drain in productivity.
So where does this leave the multitasker, now that we know it’s unproductive, ineffective, and stressful? Solutions vary, but one approach might be to ‘unitask’, whereby we complete one task before undertaking another, or by setting aside dedicated chunks of time for each separate activity, allowing ourselves to focus on one thing before moving on to the next. Unfortunately, with so much distraction being available at our fingertips, it could be said that today’s society is experiencing an attention crisis, or a ‘cognitive plague’. This inability to focus hinders workplace productivity, weakens intimate personal relationships, and impairs judgment while driving. It’s not all bad though; when you lose your car in the Westfield car park due to multitasking, at least Google Maps will help you find it.