Multitasking: Boon or Bane?

A funny thing happened to me yesterday. I was simultaneously writing resource files for Intel, answering an email, listening to a webinar, and responding to a text message when an article (in a magazine which I was also browsing) stopped me in my tracks. It was an article about multitasking. The irony was not lost on me. Clearly, this is an area where I have some personal experience to bring to the table!

The article poses the question, Did our reliance on modern technology grow from a human desire to multitask? Or did our propensity to multitask develop and expand because we have so many tools to jump to and from? This got me thinking about why I multitask: why, for instance, do I need 3 computer monitors to handle the number of windows and programs I have open at the same time? The truth, according to this article, is that it’s a necessity. We are expected to be accessible and respond promptly in this information-on-demand culture. Personally, I enjoy the continued work flow that comes from frequently switching tasks and using different tools, ensuring that my brain won’t “tap out” and I won’t end up staring at the computer screen in a fog. I feel that I am most productive when I am stimulated with the variety of ideas and thoughts that come from multitasking.

In the realm of education, this author argues that by developing the ability to quickly jump between tasks, students are honing the very skills they need to successfully navigate an inundation of information. He points out, however, that opportunities for practice are crucial when developing the analytic and critical thinking skills needed to be able to prioritize and manage multiple tasks. 

As a counterpoint, the second author argues that humans can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. At least, I think that’s what he was saying. I was focused on updating my Facebook status. He argues that humans are not like computers, which can run multiple processes with all of the needed focus on each one. To do something well, we must be able to focus on that task and delegate other inputs to appropriate, lesser levels of awareness. So we are not, in fact, multitasking but rather switching focus from one task to another very quickly. He argues that this can be detrimental to education because students cannot do their very best work if their attention is elsewhere.

This article certainly got me thinking about the effectiveness of my multitasking behaviors. Are you a multitasker? Well, if you’ve answered an e-mail or tweeted during the course of reading this blog post, then guilty as charged. :-)