There is no such thing as multitasking. Many of us find this hard to accept because many of us can do a few things in parallel. For example, we can write an email and at the same time, watch a movie. It seems like a good thing because two things get done at the same time. Why do we say that multitasking is not real?
We need to examine if the tasks done in parallel happen in the best possible manner. Should we keep multitasking?
Multiple tasks or one at a time?
Scientists say that human brains are designed to move fast from one thing to another. So, we move between tasks swiftly while many of us think that we are multitasking. However, science shows that we keep juggling our attention from one task to another through the process of doing two things in parallel. Our brain does one thing at a time, but the observer feels that we are engaged with both activities. So, we write a few words and then go to the activity of watching the movie.
When we are trying to absorb the movie, our mind is not handling the task of writing the email. So, there is quite a movement back and forth when we are doing two things in parallel. The process of moving back and forth consumes mental energy and thus, lowers the energy we can supply to each task done independently. Hence, each task needs a longer time to finish. More often than not, we are in hurry to finish each task and that is one of the reasons why we are trying to do a few things together. Thus, the quality of the task takes a beating.
Sometimes our role is such that our work gets done in ‘interrupt mode’. For example, a customer service executive at a counter keeps getting incoming calls, messages and walk-in customers with queries. He or she has to deal with all of them. Sometimes, the query of one customer could be very simple and can be resolved in a matter of few seconds while the others could take longer. Similarly, there could be high-priority queries which need to be handled first keeping the others on hold. Hence, a first-in-first-out approach may not work all the time. Often an experienced executive can identify the possibility of quick checkouts and takes up resolving a query by interrupting the usual queue of queries.
System designers need to understand this and take necessary actions to let the customer service executive focus on one task at a time rather than doing back-and-forth movements.
Haven’t we seen people sit through the meetings with their laptops or tablets on? One wonders if they are participating in the meeting and making notes or attending to tasks or activities outside the meeting. We come together for a meal and conversations, but so often we keep checking messages on WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and so on. Do we find the conversation boring or the messages on our phone alluring? How meaningfully do we contribute to the conversation we have been invited to? Our brain cannot function actively on two tasks at the same time and thus, we compromise our efficiency by switching back and forth between tasks.
It is important to limit the time periods for which we can work uninterruptedly so that our mind does not get distracted by the fear of missing out on issues which may be potentially important. We need to plan our days clearly and precisely so that we address the significant topics. We have to draw our boundaries clearly to ensure that we choose the significant tasks to address. Also, it is important to decide the sequence in which the tasks have to be taken up so that our attention and energy get focused on the right things at the right time.