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  • Ninay Desai

The Myth of Multi-Tasking


India has probably the cheapest mobile data in the world. Practically everyone with a smartphone has 1 GB of data available to them every day. Some of us also have a broadband connection at home and at our workplaces. All this inexpensive data allows us to scroll for hours through free social media apps – consuming several hours of mostly inane content, keep up with friends, family and sadly, even work emails. Except that it’s not as inexpensive as we think it is.


It costs us our ability to focus, our concentration and perhaps most importantly, our time. Time is irreplaceable even if you were willing to pay for it. Think about it. Something you think is practically free i.e. internet access, robs you of a thing so valuable that, once lost, even the richest person on the planet can’t buy it back - Time. Add to that, another precious commodity, Focus. And yet, you think it costs you nothing. This is perhaps the greatest mind trick of our times – a kind of mass hypnosis. And I’m not even going into the costs of data mining and the ways in which the companies that own our data manipulate us, mostly because I don’t know all the ways. But what I know is scary enough.


A woman is seated at a round table though we can only her forearms and hands since the photo has been clicked from a top angle. One of her hands is placed over the keys of her laptop while she lifts some noodles with chopsticks with her right hand. Her cellphone lies close to her laptop signifying multi-tasking. Image by No Revisions

Some of you may think I’m being alarmist. Read on and then you can decide. Here’s what I’ve observed in my own life. I’ve been a reader for almost as long as I can remember. However, I believe that I used to read faster when I was younger than I do now, mostly because I keep being interrupted by a bing or a ping. And when that doesn’t happen, I reach for my phone to check if I missed a beep. Confession: I’m guilty of unlocking and scrolling through some or the other app even when I can see that I have no notifications whatsoever. Not even the non-urgent kind. This is pathetic behaviour but I know I’m not alone in this dome of dopamine-addiction.


THE MYTH OF MULTI-TASKING


Even though I stand under this dome, I’m at least part of the group of people that admit their addiction instead of pretending to be a multi-tasker. The myth of multi-tasking is a seductive one. It paints the incessant phone-checking, email-responding, text-sending while we work, converse or read, as the pinnacle of productivity. It soothes us into propagating the idea that somehow, we've evolved into beings that are able juggle all these balls effortlessly. But truth be told, that’s the kind of stuff that only shows stupendous results in a movie montage set to uplifting music.


FOCUS IS INDIVISIBLE


In real life, multi-tasking splits your focus and concentration leading to slower progress in whatever you’re doing. Let’s assume I’m writing a report while simultaneously, responding to emails and text messages. While I may want to believe that 80% of my focus is devoted to writing the report and only 20% is spent on responding to a colleague with a brief mail or a quick exchange over text with a friend. Sadly, that’s not how it works. Every time I shift from one task to another, 100% of my focus moves to it.


Focus is a currency of sorts. We can choose where we invest it but it differs from money in one very significant way. Unlike money, your focus cannot be invested in two or more areas at the same time. As a result, while I’m sending a meme to a friend, I’m no longer working on my report and my focus is wholly concentrated on the text message. Ten seconds later, I might turn it back to the report but the shift in gears isn’t quite as smooth as we like to believe. I will need to collect my thoughts all over again and read the last few lines I wrote to get back into the flow of things. And just as I do, my phone will buzz with a response to the meme I sent. And the whole cycle begins again.


Don’t take my word for it. Basing its conclusions on research findings, the American Psychological Association states that,

“shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time”.

Which means that if I could’ve written this post in an hour of uninterrupted time, it’ll probably take me at least an hour and 40 minutes to complete if I continue texting, emailing and checking my stock portfolio while I write this. So much for productive multi-tasking.


THE AGE OF DISTRACTION


I know generational stereotyping is annoying but unfortunately, I meet a lot of people who believe that they are somehow better-equipped to multi-task simply because they grew up in an age where cell phones and the internet were as ubiquitous as pen and paper. Perhaps, even more so (Try borrowing a pen from someone and you’ll see what I mean). And yet, unless Millennials and Gen Z have managed to re-engineer their own pre-frontal and parietal cortexes in all the free-time they gained due to multi-tasking, all this talk about being natural multi-taskers is just wishful thinking that doesn’t have any facts supporting it.


But again, this fig leaf isn’t used only by Millennials and Gen Z. Anyone who doesn’t want to be parted from their devices usually uses some or the other form of this argument. But the facts remain the same, regardless of your age or argument.


We know that it takes longer to complete a task if one is distracted. I know this without any help from the American Psychological Association because I’ve been writing this blog post for more than two hours and I’m still not done!


MULTI-TASKING DIMINISHES QUALITY


The other aspect of productivity is the quality of the work done. Is quality impacted by multi-tasking? A study conducted at Stanford University on their students, found that self-proclaimed chronic multi-taskers made more mistakes and remembered less than those who multi-tasked less often. Another Stanford study found evidence to support the conclusion that chronic multi-taskers are worse at analytical reasoning as well.


David Jones, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology observed similar patterns amongst his students who, he believed weren’t doing as well as they should be. Jones explained,

“It’s not that the students are dumb. It’s not that they aren’t trying. I think they’re trying in a way that’s not as effective as it could be because they’re distracted by everything else.”

It goes without saying that students who have made it to a premier institution like MIT aren’t ‘dumb’, which means that perhaps the lack of focus caused by distractions in the guise of multi-tasking is the problem.


TRY IT YOURSELF


Ultimately, we all need to take a minute and ask ourselves if our minds are more or less focussed when we are being interrupted by our devices. If you can’t answer that, try an experiment. Like I did. It took me about three hours to write this post. I also responded to several messages, monitored the share prices of four to five stocks and bought shares in two, ate lunch and checked my LinkedIn account. Without all these secondary tasks, I could most likely have written this post in little more than an hour.


Next time, I’ll keep my phone aside and write on days when I don’t want to buy any shares. Let’s see how that goes. I’ll be sure to report back. And I’d love to hear about your conclusions if you do conduct a similar experiment.


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8 ความคิดเห็น


Dilip Desai
Dilip Desai
17 ม.ค.

You couldn't be more right. Unless popping popcorn into your mouth while watching TV constitutes a form of multi-tasking!

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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
17 ม.ค.
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Lol... That's the sort of multi-tasking all of us could and should get behind! Thanks for reading and commenting.

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portia.putatunda
05 ม.ค.

@Ninay DesaiYour insightful exploration into the myth of multi-tasking strikes a chord with the hidden costs we often overlook in our digitally connected lives.

In a world drowning in information, your words serve as a wake-up call to the true expense of our digital indulgences.

Your courage to peel back the layers and hint at the unseen costs, like data mining and manipulation, adds a layer of complexity to the narrative. It prompts us to reflect not only on the personal toll but also on the broader implications of our data-driven world. Thank You for this!



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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
05 ม.ค.
ตอบกลับไปที่

Thank you for reading! We're all in this together and need to search for our own solutions and help each other along the way. Thanks, Portia!

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zafran9
25 พ.ย. 2566

I agree, we are so short of time to relax & do things we enjoy, that we assume that multi-tasking would save us some. But, you are right that is never the case. It's better to do lesser tasks than wasting precious time.

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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
26 พ.ย. 2566
ตอบกลับไปที่

Thanks for reading and commenting. The lesson I learnt from my experiment is to attend to one task at a time. It might even end up saving us time because our focus is not interrupted. Also, the quality might be higher as well.

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Guest
21 พ.ย. 2566

One doesn't realise we waste so much of our precious time on mobiles, reading or watching unimportant things.

Well brought out points.

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Ninay Desai
Ninay Desai
21 พ.ย. 2566
ตอบกลับไปที่

So true. I hope to be more disciplined myself. Thanks for your comment and for reading.

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