A Little Bit of Everything is a Lot of Little
How Multitasking has Kept You From Being a Super Hero
Written by: Eunice Marpaung
As you are reading this, there is a really good chance you are also listening to music, waiting for a text, and/or keeping track of your friends’ weather and food updates all within the same period of time. And this is only one example of the many sets of multitasking activities in which we engage on a daily basis. I myself am guilty of studying while talking on the phone, while eating Chinese take-out dinner, while working on a blog…like this one.
I have improvements in technology to thank for making such multitasking possible. Technological advances have allowed me to video chat, check my email, balance bank accounts, set up a dinner date, and buy shoes for the dinner date all on one device and all during one online session. I can get more work done when there is more work out on the desktop to do, right?
Nope. Research work done by Wylie and Allport (2000) shows that multitasking actually decreases productivity. I think that I’m doing different activities simultaneously, but I’m actually switching quickly between tasks. There is also a “switch time” that occurs when going from one task to another. This transition time takes even more time away from doing tasks. So if my brain isn’t capable of multiple processing, then by having more activities out to do, I’m actually dividing out more of my time to do each task.
Wylie’s and Allport’s micro-multitasking concepts can be applied on a larger scale. High school and college students are told that admissions committees are looking for well-rounded applicants, or, basically, those who are good at multitasking. I have been told by various advisors that medical school admissions officers prize the students that do well with a tough academic load while volunteering, shadowing physicians, doing research, getting published, serving as a student organization leader for a philanthropic organization or two, having a hobby like sports and/or music, and still somehow having a social life. Phew, even saying all that in one breath is difficult. Why do we think that being able to do all these things at once qualify us to be excellent doctors?
According to research done by Xu and his lab, people think that individual tasks are harder and will require more effort to do because there are other tasks to do. Being able to multitask only seems impressive because I think I’m accomplishing harder tasks. Although serving on the board of four organizations, while doing research on stress, while doing other pre-med things does make me look more impressive on an application, the actual impact done in my activities is much less than if I just focused on one of those tasks. No wonder I never got published.
It’s too bad single-tasking not as easy as it sounds. If it was, I’d have a Nobel Prize by now. The difficulty in macro-focus stems from my micro-multitasking. In 2009, the Stanford Reportshowed that after multitasking for a few hours, it is harder to focus on other larger tasks. By micro-multitasking, I’m developing a “popcorn brain” (CNN, 2011) that prefers constantly different stimulation over a slower, more singular stimulation, such as checking my phone for messages rather than walking my dog. Sorry, Fido.
These concepts of multitasking can be applied to even larger issues, that is, in humanity’s ways of attempting to solve the world’s problems, which include infectious diseases, cancer, human trafficking, hunger, global health disparities, and more. In our attempts to be super heroes, we try to solve different problems at once. As a result, instead of making meaningful, large progress on one issue, average progress is often made on many different issues.
Now, I’m not trying to disregard the average progress. Average progress has allowed humanity to come up with different forms of chemotherapy, energy sources, and ways for people to have clean water. Average progress has saved many lives. But how much more efficient in solving the world’s problems can I be, and how many more lives can I help save closer to now, if I focused on just one problem? For many of these problems, such as infectious diseases, this efficiency is imperative, vital, crucial.
(written in bold and caps since we’re trained to jump to this part)
Technological advances have allowed us to do many more things at once. But the increase in our workload positively correlates with our lack of focus on individual tasks. These tasks, such as a solving a global issue, end up not receiving the attention it deserves. Maybe the problem with solving world problems is that we are trying to solve too many problems at once. To improve the world in the most efficient way, the best solution is to find a problem to which you want to focus your time, attention, and energy. Then stick with that one problem until you find a solution. Find the cure for cancer. Eradicate another disease. A lot of one thing is actually quite a lot.
Image: Retrieved from http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/2011/04/28/instant-productivity-booster-quit-multitasking/.
Cohen, E. (2011). Does life online give you ‘popcorn brain’? CNN Health. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/06/23/tech.popcorn.brain.ep/index.html.
Stanford Report (2009). Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows. Stanford News. Retrieved from http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html.
Wylie, G., Allport, A. (2000). Task switching and the measurement of “switch costs.” Psychological Research, 63(3-4), pp. 212-233.
Xu, L. B. (2008). Impact of simultaneous collaborative multitasking on communication performance and experience. Doctoral Dissertation, Ohio State University.
*The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author of this blog post do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of UAID or official policies of UAID.