Multitasking: Can anyone do it well?

Some people think they’re amazing multitaskers. You know, that mom you can’t stand who explains how she runs on the treadmill while reading Godel, Escher, Bach and also planning gourmet lunches for her children. And some of us multitask because we have no choice, but we do it knowing it’s not going to lead anywhere good.

Which side do you think I’m on? ::snort::

I’m thinking about this because yesterday was one of those days that make me feel sympathy for people with ADD. Every time I started a task—whether it was work or cleaning or something for the Neighborhood Watch (I’m the co-chair ::sigh::)—I would remember something else I should be doing. And then I’d find myself trying to log on to work while checking if my son needed a clean diaper and looking for my notes from last night’s meeting.

As you can also guess, I’m sure, the result was that nothing got done particularly well. I didn’t get nearly enough work done, the house is still a mess, and my notes aren’t completely typed up.

Well, they weren’t when I originally typed that sentence…but then I got distracted by eight million other things and never finished the post. Which is sort of amusing, considering.

In any case. I believe that when last I checked, the research was all coming up on the side of concentrating rather than multitasking. That is, you’re better off focusing on one thing rather than trying to answer e-mail, return phone calls, and write that report at the same time.

In “Multitasking: Switching costs” (which has references for the research, so I won’t bother), the author notes:

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.

The problem is, with our modern lives, how can we avoid it?

I’ve seen good suggestions in the past, like switching off the ringer on your phone, disabling the alert that you’ve got an e-mail…there’s even a widget out there that will temporarily disable your Internet access so that you’re not tempted to surf the Web!

Unfortunately, the only widget I’ve ever seen that will keep my children from bugging me every five minutes is called a “television.” 😉

I try to carve out chunks of time to do things that require focus, like working. Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who can’t ignore a ringing phone or an incoming e-mail, but I’m trying to learn. Meanwhile I do the best I can to not switch tasks constantly, and hope that’s good enough. But some days are just made of multitasking.

So, do you prefer multitasking or concentration? Do you agree with the research results?

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About mamamara

I'm a 40-somethng, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
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8 Responses to Multitasking: Can anyone do it well?

  1. Deb says:

    Concentration! Although it takes discipline to carve out time for a task, you can knock it out so much faster without distractions.

  2. DebC says:

    That “television widget” isn’t compatible with our household. Little Man may have tv on, but he doesn’t actually sit down for it. TV watching is very active and interactive here!

  3. KJ says:

    My multitasker broke. Seriously. I burned out mentally and crashed physically last year, and when I got better I cannot do more than (okay, two) things at a time. And that’s not advisable, because both things get done half-arsed and I feel anxious about it.

    So. Now I do things one at a time as much as possible. Not an option for parents with young kids, I know, but for me it’s the only way I stay sane and balanced and focused. I have to do triage in some situations, but jumping from pillar to post is not feasible for me anymore. And I’m much happier, too.

    BTW, there’s a 12 step program for that.

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