Saturday, September 5, 2009

So Clever ! You Can Multitask !

Today is Saturday. I am at home and busy.

I am working on two laptops, surfing the net, playing online games, taking calls or texting on my mobile phone, flipping newspapers, listening to music on my MP3 player, teasing our house cats, glancing at TV adz, talking to someone in the house and someone else over the Instant Messaging.

Yes, I am multitasking.

Similar scenes are also played when I am at work in the office. I have to juggle with a laptop, an office phone, a mobile phone, instant messaging, emails, impromptu discussions and occasional outburst of hullabaloo from various corners of the office.

I share such lifestyle with many.

Even though I am constantly handling several tasks concurrently, I am managing. Well, at least I think I am managing as I do not feel unduly stressed by it. In fact, I somewhat enjoy it as it gives me a (false?) sense of achievement.

But today, I decide to take a little time and examine this modern lifestyle of multitasking. I am beginning to wonder if this is a sign of advancement or deterioration of human skills.

Classic psychology studies suggest that people are generally not so good at multitasking. However, when I randomly look around, many people are doing so and they appear to be rather good at it. This is especially so amongst the teenagers and young adults.

Have we become smarter? I would like to think so but a recent studies prompted me to 'get real'.

The researchers at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) conducted psychology tests on media multitaskers. They worked with two groups of people: those who multitasked and those who did not and three areas of test were carried out to see if they have the ability necessary for multitasking, ie.

(a) ability to ignore irrelevant information;

(b) ability to organise working memory and,

(c) ability to switch tasks.

Both groups were subject to those tests and it was found that the non-multitaskers consistently out-did their multitasker counterparts in those psychology tests for attention and memory. The finding suggests that multitaskers do not have what it takes to be good at multitasking.

In other words, multitaskers suck at multitasking!

The finding puzzles me. Why do multitaskers, who do not have the necessary multitasking skills, choose to multitask?

It is a chicken-and-egg thing. It could be that multitaskers choose to multitask because they want to hone the skills they lack. Alternatively, all the multitasking activities could have blunted their skills.

As a multitasker, I find it hard to swallow the fact that I am lousy at multitasking. That is the problem. Multitaskers often think of themselves as people capable of handling many tasks concurrently. I am also very tempted to think like wise.

I can continue to go under the illusion that I am a really good multitasker but I decide to give the matter some thought... Could it be that I am merely good at picking up various activities concurrently but in actual fact, I suck at each of those activities, when done at the same time?

I recall some of the multitasking moments when I listened to someone talking on the phone while my fingers were hammering on the keyboard. At the same time, I was trying to steal glances at incoming emails. While all those were going on, I failed to ignore the blinking light reminding me that someone wanted to talk to me via the Instant Messaging.

In those moments, I would intermittently go "Huh?" on the line, tapping the "Backspace" key on the keyboard and worse of all, holding an inappropriate conversation with a mistaken identity over the Instant Messaging. Grrr.

Fine. I did not do all of those tasks WELL while I was attempting to do them all at once. Somehow, the act of multitasking does give me, as well as other multitaskers, a sense of satisfaction in this time-pressed era. We think we are high achievers given that there are so many tasks awaiting to be completed.

The term 'multitasking' actually originated in the computing industry when it was used to describe the microprocessor, ie. the computer brain, being capable of achieving many tasks concurrently. However, psychologists have never agreed to the idea that human brains are also good at doing things in that manner. They think that multitasking is difficult from a cognitive perspective.

You may have been told that women are better multitaskers than men. Being a "she", I would readily subscribe to that but I realise that it is not really proven. Men and women, apparently, have equal ability in multitasking.

Similarly, we tend to think that the youngsters from the Generation Y and Generation Z are better multitaskers than those from the older generations. Again, most experts believe that the members of the Net Generation are not any better.

Looks like no one is actually good at multitasking, men or women, young or old.

The habit of multitasking is also creeping onto the motorways. Many studies have found that drivers engage in other tasks such as texting, reading, writing or talking on the mobile phone while driving on the road.

For obvious reasons, drivers who are overdosed with alcohol are not allowed to drive because of their reduced ability to control the wheels. Interestingly, similar emphasis on banning multitasking while driving is far lacking behind.

To all the job seekers out there, check your resume. Have you included "Ability to multitask" under the sub-header "Strength"? Think again.

I guess my next task, a single uninterrupted task, is to ponder over how I can work on my attention management. For a start, I shall not multitask when I write.

OK, let me close all the other windows on my PC now. Sorry, IM mate, we chat later, okay? Yup, TTYL.

"Multitask - verb, The act of screwing everything up simultaneously.”

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