Multitasking mediocrity

In this age of hi-speed internet, phones with multiple cores processing information and a rampant penetration of hi-tech gadgets into our everyday life, it has become increasingly easy for us to do a variety of tasks in a variety of circumstances. We can check our email at the dinner table while we eat, check up on our social networks and tweet, text or watch YouTube videos anywhere and almost anytime via smartphones, tablets and other such gadgets. Granted this is a bit of old news and so is multitasking. If you’ve been awake for at least a day in the past few years, then you would know about all this already.

However, what most of us don’t know and realize is the delusion of multitasking. Our attention span is dwindling as the generations go by. Due to the breakneck speed at which we are carrying out our daily duties, thanks to advances in technology, we are slowly losing our ability to concentrate on a task for a prolonged period. Instead, we get distracted and do something else. This is a very common situation. You may be refreshing your Facebook page one minute and the next minute, you are playing a game on your mobile phone or flash game on the PC. And we give this a fancy name called multitasking.

The term multitasking is coined with respect to Computers. Originally, when there was only 1 core in the CPU, a computer performed multiple tasks by focusing on one task at a time in a round-robin fashion and switching tasks very quickly. It was able to do this transparently since the CPU runs at several MHz, and nowadays at several GHz. Of course, with the advent of multiple core processors and other advances, computers can now do actual multitasking, though they still rely on switching rapidly between several tasks, in many occasions. Many people argue that there is a similarity between a human brain and a CPU and that we, too, do multitasking.

To a certain degree, there is a similarity between the brain and a CPU. However, there are significant differences. Firstly, we can only concentrate on a few (perhaps a maximum of 3) tasks at a time. This has to do with the fact that we have a limited working memory and we need to keep the goals of the various tasks in mind while we juggle them around. Secondly, we take a significantly longer time to jump from one task to another than a computer, and this process of jumping also comes with its own set of problems. We usually take some time to get into the mindset needed to do a task, which affects our productivity. Simple tasks like cleaning clothes, throwing the garbage, etc. will probably not need a significant effort to jump into. But more complicated tasks such as analytical thinking, etc. need a lot more effort to dive into. And this brings me to the first difference between a computer and a human mind.

Computers mostly perform algorithms, such as sequential tasks. These tasks are procedural and all that needs to be done is to follow the instructions “mechanically”. Also, when computers switch a task, they switch a task, immediately. They don’t continue to “think” about the previous task. They also have a quantifiable amount of memory (that is functionally similar to our working memory) and can immediately recall all the relevant information about the task. On the other hand, our tasks often involve thinking and cognition. We need to analyze and interpret information in non-trivial ways. For example, a scientist or a researcher may need to solve a problem, for which no solution or procedure is readily available. He/she has to come up with the solution. This requires our concentrated effort. And when we switch from one task to another, we are disrupting our flow of thought and, consequently, need some time to refocus on the new task. Unlike computers, we cannot (at least not efficiently) store the state of our thought process and resume it once we get back to the task. We need to spend some time getting focused. Research has shown that we take as much as 20 minutes or even more to get into the flow of a task when we switch from another, and this leads to significant loss of productivity.

Moreover, we tend to linger over the previous tasks even when we are supposed to be thinking of the new task at hand. This amounts to distraction, and the more we try to “multitask” the more fickle our mind becomes. This is visibly apparent as restlessness and one can see tell-tale signs in our body language. Typical signs are twiddling of our thumbs or a pen in our hands, or the restless motion of our legs. I have personally done this, while trying to multitask while studying.

Sometimes we multitask because we are bored or we dislike the activity we are doing. For example, you have to cram for a particularly boring exam, say History. You find reading the textbook boring and end up watching T.V. while reading to make it feel less arduous. However, you are doing yourself a disservice because you will take a longer time to read the textbook, you read it less effectively and you don’t manage to enjoy the show. On the other hand, if you simply focused on studying, you would finish reading quicker, you remember the material better and you can relax more effectively later. You get a sense of satisfaction.

All of what I said so far is mainly my opinion that I have built from both personal experiences and experiences of others. Nevertheless, some research into this issue suggests to me that the point I’m trying to make is logically sound and is in fact supported by scientific evidence.

In summary, we are not good at multitasking. We struggle to handle even a couple of tasks without losing out on productivity and if we pile on further tasks, we slump into mediocrity.

The following are some interesting posts on this subject (References):

4 Replies to “Multitasking mediocrity”

  1. Interesting and a nice analysis…I’m not too sure about the working memory though. Goal setting and retrieval is probably independent of WM, especially in the context of your discussion.

  2. Hey, glad you liked it. It is difficult to tell whether goals are stored in working memory or not. But generally, we keep them in mind. If you have to type a letter to a prof, say, and study something and buy some stuff, then you keep these thoughts in mind. I guess that is working memory. If you juggle too many tasks, you tend to forget about some tasks. Therefore, when we have many tasks, we tend to write it down on a paper, or somewhere so that we can refer back. Then we are removing those thoughts from working memory. So, if we manage our thought process by noting down stuff and do the tasks 1 or 2 at a time, then we can do stuff more systematically and effectively. I noticed this myself when I had too many things to do at the same time. So, that is why I think we are better off doing a couple of difficult tasks at a time.

    On the other hand, I think we can manage to do several procedural stuff (that is things that we can do without thought like cycling, driving, swimming, etc.). That is because these procedures are learned by our brain and it becomes “second nature”. Doctors say that these procedural skills are stored in some part of the brain (I forget which part). So, we can multitask these type of tasks better than more complex, involved tasks.

  3. I understand what you are trying to convey, all I was saying is the explicit goal(like write a letter) may not be stored in the WM but instead a subtask or state may be stored in the WM(like the last subject of the letter before task got switched) and may impose a limit on the number of goals.One must realize average WM is 7+-2 and usually works in the order of seconds, so explicit goal storage(order of minutes or hours) itself may happen somewhere else. Better multitasking with procedural memory and working memory makes sense.

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