Have you ever felt that you could master the art of juggling?
No, I'm not talking about keeping six balls up in the air at the same time. I'm talking about the ability to multi-task, to do several different things at the same time, such as simultaneously watching television, surfing Facebook and reading a magazine; or watching your kid doing his/her homework while you talk on one mobile phone (jamming it between your ear and shoulder) and type a text message on another phone (and if you don't have a second phone, try filling a kettle to boil water for tea).
In the old days, juggling acts of this nature would have been frowned upon. But people in the not-so-distant past had different values and rather different ideas about how to lead their everyday lives. (And, of course, there can never be any absolute rights or absolute wrongs on this plane of analysis.)
Back then we may have had the luxury of doing things at a more relaxed pace because we were under less pressure or didn't have so many competitors or we had fewer commitments to fulfil or fewer diversions _ and thus a lot more time on our hands.
Perhaps no one describes this lifestyle better than Mae West, that ever-witty American actress: "Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly."
But nowadays, multi-tasking is seen as an achievement, a necessity, even; one is often admired for being able to do a greater number of things in a given length of time. So, more and more people are multi-tasking _ sometimes unconsciously.
For example, an increasing number of us wear headphones as we stroll down the street. For some, walking and listening to music are no longer two different actions; they've merged into one. Is it natural to automatically insert earphone buds or don burger-size headphones before heading out the door? Does nobody worry about the safety aspect? (When a car is heading straight for you, after its driver has lost control, will you hear the warning sounds in time to save yourself?)
There was a time when such juggling acts would not have been encouraged. Parents used to switch off distractions like TV and radio sets while their children were studying textbooks, writing essays or doing other homework assignments. In fact, I believe many still do.
But I wonder how many children will get the message that extraneous noise can affect one's ability to concentrate if these kids grow up seeing their parents regularly watch television, read and send texts from their mobile phones _ all at the same time.
Several social studies have indicated that multi-tasking is the way to do many things _ badly. People who regularly put themselves in this situation may find that their ability to focus on complicated tasks has become impaired; they may start exhibiting symptoms similar to those of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).
But other researchers see things differently. Earlier this year, a study by Kelvin Lui and Alan Wong from the Chinese University of Hong Kong painted a more positive picture. The pair's findings were that those who frequently use different types of media simultaneously, appear to be better at integrating information from different sensual sources, principally sight and hearing. Their research blamed impair-ments like slow response time and an inability to retain facts (poor short-term memory) on a lack of sufficient focus on the information most relevant to the task at hand. Interestingly, however, the pair did not identify the reason why multi-taskers were having problems focusing on the most relevant information. Could the effort involved in multi-tasking itself be to blame?
Still, I very much doubt whether any academic research, no matter how negative, will have much effect on habitual multi-taskers. I, for one, can't stop. Can you? Ultimately, we will continue doing it simply because we can.
But there are a few things we should know as we multi-task our way through this world. The information that follows is from an article entitled "Is multi-tasking a myth? which first appeared on the BBC website (www.bbc.co.uk) on Aug 20, 2010.
- Studies by Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, have found that when people are continually distracted from one task, they work faster but produce less.
- Another study found that students solving a maths puzzle took 40% longer _ and suffered more stress _ when they were made to multi-task.
- Researchers at Stanford University found that regular multi-taskers are actually quite bad at it. In a series of tests that required switching attention from one task to another, heavy multi-taskers had slower response times than those who rarely multi-tasked.
- US studies have shown that students who do homework while watching television get consistently lower grades.
- It is possible to multi-task with good results only if the tasks undertaken are sufficiently different from each other: doing household chores while listening to music; driving a car while conducting a conversation, etc. Different parts of our brain are designed to handle different kinds of intellectual activity. The BBC website article carried this quote from Prof John Duncan, a behavioural neuroscientist at Cambridge University:
"The brain has very specialised modules for different tasks, like language processing and spatial recognition. It stands to reason that two similar tasks are much harder to do simultaneously, because they're using similar bits of tissue."
So you can't desist? You can't stop texting and checking your emails as you watch TV, fill the kettle and talk on the phone? Well, if you want to become a real multi-tasking pro, here are a few tips from David Crenshaw, author of The Myth Of Multitasking:
- If you want to be productive it's best not to multi-task at all.
- Your mobile-phone ringer doesn't need to be on all the time. You can turn off computer email notification as well. Become master over the nagging beeps and buzzes by creating some silence.
- Set regular times in the day and week to check your email and voicemail.
- If you participate actively in social media, have set times where you can focus on it.
Still, I doubt whether that droplet of wisdom from Mae West will ever go out of date. To paraphrase: If it's worth multi-tasking, it's worth doing slowly.
Anchalee Kongrut is a feature writer for Life, currently based in Beijing on the FK journalist exchange programme.
About the author
- Writer: Anchalee Kongrut
Position: News Reporter