The Myth of Multitasking!

Multitasking?! I exclaimed in exasperation to a young colleague of mine who wished to claim credit for his ability to do several things at the same time. His point was that since he was better at multitasking compared to his other colleagues at work, he deserved better increment! I told him bluntly that I never considered a multitasker to be an asset to the organization. He looked puzzled. So I took it upon myself to explain to him in some detail. Here are a few insights that I gathered on the subject over the years:

Firstly and most importantly, Scientific evidence is clearly against this practice. I am using the word Practice advisedly since many youngsters have been consciously trying to master this by constant practice. Many take pride in their ability to do several things at the same time and in fact mention this as a special skill in their resume too.  So, the question is whether multitasking( MT) increases productivity in the workplace? Not a chance. Neuro scientists have proved conclusively that it increases stress, wastes time, and therefore leads to incompetence at work. Quality of output suffers as we miss out on vital insights due to lack of adequate attention on any one task.

Our brains have evolved over millions of years to concentrate on one thing at a time. So by forcing yourself to do several things at a time, you are de-evolving your brain. Human brain is distinguished from animal brains by the presence of the so called prefrontal cortex (or PFC for short). What is the function of PFC? This is the centre of  our AWARENESS. PFC  is also known as our inner CEO. Without PFC we are no better than animals. PFC becomes active every time we engage in an important task requiring attention. If we take up 2 important tasks at the same time, PFC’s attention gets divided between the 2 tasks, resulting in unsatisfactory performance of both the tasks. Okay, just in case you are sceptical about Scientists, let us consider ancient wisdom. I am sure everyone remembers the old Nursery Rhyme, which goes like this:

Work while you work,
Play while you play,
This is the way
To be happy each day.

All that you do,
Do with your might,
Things done by half
Are never done right.

This old poem is enough proof of the fact that our ancestors indeed gave a lot of importance to the practice of  MINDFULNESS! Clearly multitasking is the opposite of concentration!

My battle against multitasking goes back to early years of my career. I clearly remember my boss instructing me long time back as follows: “You start this experiment… in the meanwhile plan another experiment….. in the meantime read up this article & write this report……and make sure that the first experiment is finished before lunch….!”.  Being hopelessly bad at multitasking, I kept wondering how on earth I would satisfy this guy! I recall telling him politely but firmly that I am bad at doing things in parallel and added, for good measure, that I can compensate for that by doing a good job of any one task at a time! Not that my boss was impressed with my honest submission! But then that is a different story!

This brings us to the question whether one should multitask at all. The answer is, of course, yes. Surprised? Let me explain. This has to do with our brain structure again. I mentioned earlier that humans are unique in the development of Prefrontal Cortex or PFC , which is the centre of awareness. There is another part of our brain which is common with animals and is known as  ‘Basal Ganglia’ and this is meant for routine, repetitive and mechanical tasks.  Therefore, the only condition in which we can attempt multitasking is when we want to combine an important task with a routine task. The former demands the active involvement of  PFC, while the latter needs just the ‘Basal Ganglia’. So the routine activity will not compete for the PFC space, which is left free for handling the task needing complete attention. So, then, what sort of  tasks  can be combined for multitasking? Here are some examples: While driving, one can listen to music but can one talk on cell phone? No way.  And, what about Home work & Texting? Sorry kids, this is not on! Why? Both tasks require your PFC time & space! How about crocheting while watching TV or listening to a discourse? My wife does it routinely and so I cannot complain!

Unfortunately, the modern day office gadgets complicate our ability to concentrate. For instance, while you are working on a report, you hear a ping on your PC alerting you to the arrival of an email, or worse still you get an sms and you are tempted to Text back. To avoid precisely this kind of distraction, I have reconfigured my office to make sure that my Laptop is located at an inconvenient corner away from my work table. So it becomes easy to  take uninterrupted screen breaks whenever I am attending to an important report.  I became aware of the email menace in the office only last week when our company server crashed and remained dead for 2 complete working days. While almost everyone complained, I really enjoyed the free(d) time to catch up with technical reading. Likewise, I enjoyed absolute freedom from my cell phone for a week when I lost my Blackberry last year!

Published in: on July 13, 2013 at 10:44 pm  Comments (3)  
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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. My father used to always say ” One thing at a time and that done well” In the Gulf getting visa for skilled workforce was tough and hence one adopted to recruiting multi-skilled workforce to overcome labor shortage and to use the workforce on different types of contracts.

  2. good observation about Gulf. However, while it is nice to be muti-skilled, it need not lead to multitasking! one can still plan one’s tasks sequentially instead of in parallel.

    • First line of my comment talks only of sequential task and not parallel. My father used to make this remark if he finds some one talking while eating. In Gulf multi-skilled workforce is recruited to use the same work force to carry out different skilled work sequentially. For example in building construction first you require a mason and then a plumber.

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