It sounds so impressive when we claim proudly…
“I am very good at multitasking!”
It provides this notion of “can-do”, fast-paced, “dancing on three weddings at the same time” and puts us in awe about ourselves. Others might also look at us with great admiration! Yet we might also get stressed out about “having to multitask” all the time.
What actually happens when we are multitasking?
Multitasking takes place between conscious and subconscious activities constantly, and I might say in a very effective and efficient manner. We drive to the office in the morning routinely without having to think and decide what to do with our car, which turns to take, when to slow down and when to accelerate – all those activities and decisions are carried out subconsciously, through our highly sophisticated internal “auto-pilot”. At the very same time, we consciously think about which appointments we have in the morning and whom to call, etc. This works very smoothly as long as we do one conscious and one subconscious activity at a time. When we add to these two it gets dicier when driving a car and we increase the risk of an accident to happen dramatically.
Science has established that 80-90% of our daily activities and decisions are executed in a subconscious, habitual mode. This habitual mode takes its energy and attention from a separate “tank”, and this tank can be expanded as we create additional habits and routines.
What takes place in the conscious sector of multitasking?
In a simplified view, we have a finite amount of “conscious” energy and attention that we can assign to any given activity we carry out which, for the sake of this argument I establish as 100%. Unfortunately, this “tank” is not so easily expandable. If we can focus on one single task the calculation is simple – 100% is injected into this task. When we add a second task both of them have to share and that sharing is not stable. When we are on the phone with somebody and, as a secondary task, checking E-mail at the same time “our control system” may assign initially 70% to the phone call and 30% to the E-mail. The moment we begin reading a specific E-mail we begin to blend out more of the phone call to assimilate the content of the Email. Suddenly, the caller may get only 35% and the mail content has attained 65%. This sharing gets worse for the caller when we begin to consciously respond to the E-mail ( a much more complex task than just reading). In addition, someone may stick his or her head into the office door wanting to tackle an urgent matter with you right now.
I guess I don’t need to elaborate any further. The quality of whatever we do while multitasking must suffer. Maybe for some of us, this would still be acceptable?
Focus is the real ticket
Let’s look at the emotional and social aspects of multitasking. How do we feel when we talk with someone on the phone about something that is important to us and we hear the person on the other end tapping on the keyboard? How do we like it when we need to speak with our boss, coworker or spouse while they keep on doing what they were doing with reasonable concentration? How does it make you feel when you hear “keep talking, I am listening” while one can recognize the reduced (and often insufficient) attention?
We constantly wonder why communication in today’s environment constant distractions is so difficult. It is probably time to reconsider the “cool” multitasking approach and do one thing at a time and do it right with focus. When communicating with another person, or a group, it is highly recommended to focus 100% on that person. In my view, the exchange will be more productive, quicker, on a higher quality level, create better results, and can be considered more respectful and satisfying.
Outside of the realm of communication, the results of multitasking are similarly questionable. The experience proves that multitasking slows down the actual achievement of results and reduces significantly the quality of the output. In other words, we tend to produce “bad” work at a slower pace.