Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Myth of Multi-tasking

I just finished a great book called, "Pragmatic Thinking and Learning". It's written mainly for programmers but for most part it, anyone can read it and get a lot out of it. It's loaded with insightful observations about how the human brain works and so forth.

One of the things that the book encourages is note taking and writing down thoughts. So, you may see more of my random thoughts on this here blog.
One of the most impacting things I learned from this book was on the topic of 'Multi-tasking'.

The author points out that multi-tasking is a myth. Our brains are simply not capable of multi-tasking (more specifically, multi-thinking). Yes, we can walk and talk at the same time, or listen to music while doing math, but when it comes to focusing on multiple things at once, our brains simply can't do it. I can't listen to the lyrics of a great song and simultaneously solve a math problem. The best I can do is switch back and forth from each task at a fast rate.

And that's essentially what multi-tasking is; switching focus from task to task at a quick rate. So, is multi-tasking good? Well, if we could switch from task to task seamlessly without losing memory, then multi-tasking might be productive and good. But unfortunately our brains don't work that way.

Imagine you're working at a desk and you're recording all your financial records for the past month. So, you've got all your receipts out, a calculator, a pencil and paper for notes, your check book is out along with your credit card bills etc, and you're recording it all on your computer. And then, you decide to take a 'quick' break to play solitaire(with real cards). Your desk is small so you have to put away most of your financial stuff to make room for the cards. But then after a few minutes you decide to go back to doing finances.... so you put the cards away and get your financial stuff back out. And then you do a little of the finances and decide you want to play solitaire again. You put away the finances and start another game. And so on.... you get the idea.

Well, that's what multi-tasking is like for our brains.

Yes, the analogy breaks down. You ask, 'Why don't I just use another desk to play solitaire?' or 'Why can't I just move some things aside to play solitaire?' In reality you could. But our brains do not have multiple 'desks' or endless amounts of desktop space.

The point is that it takes extra time (and mental energy) to switch between tasks. That explains why, if I'm trying to read a book and check my email and listen to music and watch a YouTube video at the same time, after several hours of doing so, my brain feels fried.

Our brains are limited and we can't be doing everything at once. The reason why teens are good at multi-tasking is because they generally have really sharp short-term memory, so switching tasks doesn't take as much mental energy. Nevertheless, studies have proven that multi-tasking actually decreases your mental productivity by 20%-40% and even increases your chances for error by 50%.


So, if multi-tasking is so horrible, why do we do it? Well, sometimes we have to. A dad has to stop studying or reading to hold his crying baby. Some interruptions simply can't be ignored. But how 'bout when it isn't necessary?

I'll bet that 90% of our multi-tasking is unnecessary. Is that email really that important to respond to? Is that movie trailer really worth watching right now? Do I really need to be listening to music?

Usually, when I'm 'multi-tasking', it's because I'd like to do something fun or urgent when I'm supposed to be focusing on something more important. So I pretend like I can do both at the same time.

So, what's the antidote to unhealthy multi-tasking? Well, first, you gotta set your priorities straight. "Hmm... perhaps, doing my homework is more important than watching 'Chainsaw Massacre.'" :P

And secondly, as Dad says (almost every morning. :) ), "Make the plan, work the plan." Decide to finish that homework and stick to it till it's done. Plan on finishing your chores before checking Facebook. Schedule out your day and even make time for those fun things. There's nothing wrong with music, email, movies, Facebook, etc. as long as they're not interrupting us from the more important things. See if you can schedule just one - two hours in a day for 'entertainment'. Then leave it alone for the rest of the day.

If we have no plan to begin with then a whole day can go by filled with 'multi-tasking' because every distraction was embraced. Our brains try to keep up with our crazy lives, flitting from task to task, yet they can't. Which is why we fall into bed mentally exhausted, having been so 'busy', yet, in reality, having accomplished so little.

Perhaps the increased trends of 'multi-tasking' haven't been caused by an increase in electronic distractions like Facebook, Youtube, email, name it. Perhaps, the issue really lies in a culture that has lost any purpose and self-control.

Ephesians 5:15-17 says- "Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is."

We are called to be good stewards of the time that God has gifted us with. May we not be foolish and squander our time and our mental energy on frivolous things that do not build the Kingdom of God.

Thanks for reading! :)


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