I Multitask, Not

Most of the time I am reading through articles and blogs, I am learning something new. Then there are times when I can relate to an article. However, there are rare times, when the article says exactly the same thing I wanted to share for so long. It is so good to read them and realize that your feelings have been expressed somewhere by someone.

I am talking about an article on the myth of multitasking. I was never good at multitasking and that article helped me realized the truth: multitasking does not exist. One can do many tasks switching quickly from one to another but one can only do one task at a time. Of course, the tasks that either have been mastered or that don’t require the same parts of the brain may be performed simultaneously.

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I have been told by many people that they can multitask like listen to me, understand it, reply back and still continue the other work and every time I used to ask them how they can concentrate on them at the same time, I would just hear some arguments, like it is all practice or you just have to train your brain, which were not convincing enough. Well, I have the answer now: they weren’t concentrating. They may be good and quick at switching but they can’t be doing all of it simultaneously. When we think of multitasking, one important thing that we tend to forget, we are humans. A machine may be designed to complete several tasks at the same time with different memory allocations for different tasks but we still have one brain with limited nodes. The brain has limited sections and can only handle a number of tasks. Even our machines hang up at times when they are overworked even if they are designed to perform such tasks. So it makes sense that humans fail at that as our brains are not designed for that.

I am not sure about future and with evolution may be the brain’s design is modified so much that humans can multitask. But right now, if you were trying to write a blog/comment while reading this article (or a couple of others on multitasking: 1, 2), discussing with a friend and listening to the podcast on the myth of multitasking (in case reading was not enough), stop right there. Do them one by one and you will get the most from all of them.

 

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21 thoughts on “I Multitask, Not

  1. Similar to you, I loved that there was finally an article that I felt “spoke to me.” As a public speaking TA, I am oftentimes listening and grading students in class as they give their speeches and although we record the speeches, these recordings are supposed to be more for reference. However, I have always felt like I was really bad at doing this. I am terrible at grading in class. Having said that, after reading the article, I realized that it really has less to do with me and more to do with the fact that brains do not work this. Keeping in line with your sentiments, its nice that I can be okay with going speech by speech after class and not have to stress about my lack of multitasking abilities.

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    1. Hey Blayne, I understand what you are saying. It is really important that people become aware of this as it may seriously affect their confidence. I am glad that we took this class and got a different perspective on this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Akshay,
    I couldn’t agree more: we have to our work sequentially, not simultaneously! I used to pride myself on being a “multi-tasker” but I realized that I’m not better when I do this. I actually take up more time and do a sub-par job overall. I think it was when I took this class that the concept really gelled up for me! I see now that balancing mindfulness and concentration against the tasks that must be done actually results in better work in a more timely manner. The real lesson is figuring out how to teach what you have learned about multi-tasking to your own students so that they can discover their folly and also the path to doing their best work!

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    1. Hey Sara,
      I agree that it is important to pass this knowledge to the students. I think in an activity where one group try to multitask and the other where they perform the task in a sequence may help them understand the underlying concept. It may not be the exact representative of the issue but can give a fair idea. Like Blayne pointed out, some people may doubt their abilities for not being able to multitask, where it was not their fault to begin with.

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  3. You raise an important point about how it almost impossible to do two things at the same time. No matter how good with think we are, there is no escape from failing to perform ideally under distractions. There is a general understanding that you can almost always take anything from someone who is deeply engaged in a phone conversation. People often mistake multitasking with being on autopilot. For example, most of us can cook while listening to music. That because these functions trigger different part of our brains. However, it is more challenging to do homework while cooking. No matter how focused and coordinated we are one of these tasks will eventually suffer.

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    1. You gave an interesting example, Ziyad. To be honest, I even mess up my cooking when I am paying more attention to the music, twice the salt or sometimes none. But that’s just me. There are a few things that can be done simultaneously but it is important to distinguish them and not generalize the concept. Thanks for your perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. As far as I know, humans have one consciousness, so as long as we cant control our subconscious behavior, all we can do is concentrate on one task. I have always felt than multi tasking is a myth, especially when doing tasks that require heavy concentration. Even when I multi task, like watching youtube and cooking, cooking takes me longer because i sometimes get drawn in the video and forget I was cooking. Its good to know that other people have the same opinion.

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  4. We can do different levels of multitasking. For example, I can comment on your blog while listening to music at ease. I take note during class. My wife can cook while watching TV. Ever saw a sign language interpretation on Live TV? There are a lot of examples shows that we can do multitasking. It also can be trained but depends on how much your brain can consume on these tasks. For example, I can’t write a paper while listening to music. It is just my 2 cents.

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  5. Yes! The thing you said that resonated most with me here is how we talk about our brains as “like computers”. This has bothered me for so long, we may not know much about neuroscience yet compared to a tehnology we invented,
    but that doesn’t mean we should look at ourselves as “like our technology”! I’ve always theought that should inspire more neuroscientists. ngu. My apologies if there are typos here, for some reason I can’t see the text in the box as I type. said that res

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OH MY GOODNESS, YES!
      Having my brain (or anyone’s brain) compared to a machine has always been deeply unsettling to me. I know that they have similarities and I understand why that came about, but it has gone much too far in our current discourse, to the point where we as humans have essentually handed over some of our most important cognitive tasks to computers that do not think like us. As a self-confessed Luddite, Nicholas Carr’s article really resonated with me and while it may sound like the grumblings of a person who doesn’t want “those rambunctious kids” on their lawn, I think he has a point.

      Here’s the article:
      https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This article struck home for me also. Multitasking always seemed stressful to me because I knew deep down that I inevitably was short-changing one of the tasks. I do think there is some merit to the idea of “parallel-tasking,” especially in school, where you need to be able to keep up with multiple long-term objectives at the same time. But as you say, all this really is is just being able to switch between tasks orderly and efficiently. I definitely do my best work when I can clear my mind and focus on one individual task at a time.

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  7. I love the analogy you make here in comparing our brains to overworked machines. I agree that multitasking does not exist, and even though a person can physically do multiple tasks at the same time (e.g., text while simultaneously having a conversation with a friend over lunch), they’re not as present for these tasks as they would be if they were giving their full attention to one task at a time. What’s difficult is the expectations surrounding technology—we must answer that call now, must respond to that message immediately. The norm needs to be switched, and having conversations about this needed change is a good step toward achieving this evolution toward healthier, more productive habits.

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  8. You bring up an interesting question: whether we will eventually evolve to truly multitask. I would expect that we would not, as there would have to be a great pressure upon our species that stopped us from reproducing if we were not multitasking, and that pressure would need to exist for thousands of years. As you said, we would also need to develop a way to partition our brain, which seems unnecessary to overall survival, and extremely complex.

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  9. Thanks for the post, Akshay. I completely agree with your thoughts in this post. I have comes to terms with my inability to multi-task a long time ago. Yet, I have this very debate with my spouse *all* the time about multi-tasking: when I’m talking to him while he’s on Twitter, when we’re watching something together (that he selected, by the way) while, again, he’s on Twitter. I’m always left without a rebuttal when I ask him to prove he was truly paying attention, and he’s able to repeat what I just said. In reality, it seems he was tuned in for that moment and would have likely tuned back in to his phone the next moment. *SIGHS*

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  10. Hello Akshy,
    I find so true what you are saying. Whenever I try multi-tasking I finish by messing things up. I think if somebody finish manty tasks in a shorter time than others, this fact can be to is more about organization and focus and experience. than multitasking I have one sister who whenever we have similar works to do she will finish earlier that I because she is quicker and more experience.
    I see people listening to music or news while working on something else (studying for example). I always wonder how they can do both. Is it multi-tasking or just being able to perform more while being in a noisy environment? I just do not get it. I love listening to news or to the talk in music that I cannot associate it to anything else.

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  11. Thanks for the post. As you noted in your post, I agree that there is no such thing as multitasking in a true sense. In addition, I think that although our mental process, cognitive ability and manual physical routines allow that “[o]ne can do many tasks switching quickly from one to another..”. Because of our cognitive limitations, I do not think that multitasking is effective or efficient. Deep thinking and effective thought processing is time consuming, which may not happen when an individual is fully engaged in multitasking.

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  12. Thank you for your post! I can absolutely relate to this article on multitasking as well. I once heard someone say that we can only focus on 1 and 1/2 things at once. For example, if you were to be typing up your dissertation and listening to your professor lecture at the same time one of those things will be suffering greatly. I like when you say to do things one by one to get the most out of them. I think I need to remember this more when I am trying to do to many things at once.

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  13. I definitely fall into the trap of trying to multi-task and I think I really convince myself that I multi-task successfully. While I think that some multi-tasking is possible, at the very least it compromises how efficiently we are doing each task. I totally agree with you
    that in the long run it is more efficient to just slow down, do one thing at a time, and maintain a reasonable quality for each task we are completing.

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  14. Interesting thoughts on how we reduce concentration as we increase the number of simultaneous tasks. I’m also more inclined towards paying specific attention to a particular task and then move to the next one, and multi-tasking seemed to be challenging for me.

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  15. Hey there! I especially liked your sentence “Even our machines hang up at times when they are overworked even if they are designed to perform such tasks”. I think I could be the physical embodiment of this – part of my dysautonomia disease is when I get too over stimulated or stressed, my brain will blank out and sometimes I faint! Likewise, I really love the podcast episode you linked (I’m definitely an auditory learner!), and I think it brought up some really cool points that go well with your blog post. After all, multitasking really DOES waste time in the long run, at least as far as I see it- without concentrating, we aren’t completing work to the best of our ability, so it won’t work in the long run.

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  16. I definitely agree with you that we are not able to multitask. At least not efficiently, if I am doing two things at once each of them are getting half of my effort. It’s a bit daunting to realize this and see how our supervisors and advisers are able to juggle all that they do, their problems plus our problems.

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