02 August 2011

On a Quest to Simplify - Stop Multitasking

I have been a serial multitasker for a long time and I must admit that I was proud of it. I thought that was the right way. Riding the multitasking wave used to make me feel like the do-all, be-all mighty master of every problem. The realization that women can multitask better than men gave me one more reason to proudly keep on gaining speed.

There came the time though for questioning the effects of my ability. In the past months I found myself in a whirlwind of activities that have been slowly adding to each other, each more important than the rest - activities that I couldn't refrain from and with time became more complex and required even more time. 

Photo: kanelstrand

Until recently I thought I was juggling perfectly well and I patted myself on the back for the great performance. Some of the multitasking I've caught myself into: 
  • writing a blog post and checking mail/twitter/facebook/watching TV
  • browsing/watching TV while talking on the phone 
  • my favorite - listening to an audio book while knitting/crocheting/cooking
Should I go on? I believe this is common practice for most of us, modern people and I am sure you can add your fair portion of "harmless" multitasking to the list. 

After I felt definitely burnt-out and caught myself keeping away from ventures I used to enjoy I set out to find the reason. After all, losing passion is not to be overlooked. I noticed how easily it was to fall into the multitasking trap. Wishing to spare time and thinking I was effective, I was actually losing time and overloading my brain!

Photo: kanelstrand

In "The Multitasking Generation" it is clearly stated that when you try to complete several tasks at a time, “or [alternate] rapidly between them, errors go way up and it takes far longer - often double the time or more - to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially,” The main reason for this is that the brain has no other option than to restart and refocus. A study by Meyer and David Kieras found that between the different restarts, the brain even makes no progress. So, when we multitask, we not only perform the tasks badly, but we also lose time.

As I read in Wikipedia, "since the 1990s, experimental psychologists have been conducting experiments on the nature and limits of human multitasking. It has become clear that multitasking is not as profitable as concentrated times. In general, these studies have disclosed that people show severe interference when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time."

Photo: foreverdigital

Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell even describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” Others have researched multitasking in specific domains, such as learning. Mayer and Moreno have studied the phenomenon of cognitive load in multimedia learning extensively and have concluded that it is difficult, and highly impossible to learn new information while engaging in multitasking. Junco and Cotten examined how multitasking affects academic success and found that students who engaged in more multitasking reported more problems with their academic work

Photo: Paul Oka

The scary part of the story is that modern life provokes and requires constant multitasking, as simple as listening to music while exercising. And of course, our social interaction is negatively affected. Have you noticed how young people manage to text and listen to music while having a conversation? They may be really good at switching their attention rapidly between 3 actions, but in fact, they are physically incapable of focusing on both in the same moment. 

So, I decided to experiment with myself. I consciously shut off multitasking. When I caught my eyes wandering aimlessly to the mail tab of my Firefox browser, I simply didn't succumb and didn't click through. Instead, I concentrated on what I was doing. I tried to stop all temptations that were otherwise too easy to fall into and that normally reduced my effectiveness and to tell you the truth, the feeling was liberating!

I felt I came back to an old self I had forgotten, leading a slow life of delight and appreciation of the present. Now, when you come to think of it, there is hardly a better way to enjoy the moment than to fully dip yourself into its waters - to only read when you read and to only eat when you eat; to sit quietly under a starry sky, without the glow of a display and without any interruption that you yourself have been welcoming so far. And you know what, I am planning to keep it simple, stress-free and old-fashioned. I realized my brain is not yet a computer (and thank God for that!) and there is no need to treat it like one.

You might want to read the other posts in the series On a Quest to Simplify:

Do you multitask and how does it affect your life? Does it have positive or negative effects on your life?