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So You Think You Can Multitask? Think Again.

So You Think You Can Multitask? Think Again.

According to Nick Bilton, lead technology reporter of the New York Times, the common held belief that multitasking is impossible is “media hype”, noting that the ability to multitask “depends on what the tasks are”. All experienced drivers are able to drive and talk at the same time. Most mothers are able to talk, cook and clean at the same time, but the question remains: Are they actually multitasking?

Broadman’s Area 10

Many people believe that multitasking is the only way they cope in our world of task and information overload but the reality is that the brain is incapable of actually focusing on two things at the same time. A frontal part of the brain called Broadman’s Area 10 is supposedly responsible for the brain switching from task to task, and whereas we may think we are multitasking we are actually getting good at switching from task to task more seamlessly.

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The current generation have seemingly started to use this part of the brain better than the previous generation, as switching from homework to Facebook, to using Skype on their phone are normal daily activities. Bilton says that our brains are adapting, not evolving but adapting to the increased stimulation that modern life brings. Video games may also be responsible for the development of multitasking capability in terms of attention, hand eye coordination and visual and spatial problem solving.

What is Possible?

So what about the people who say it is possible to watch television, send emails, tweet and have a conversation with their partner all at the same time? Well, these people are simply task-switching.

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And what about those who can drive and talk on the phone, or dance and sing or rub their bellies and pat their heads? In these examples one of the two tasks has become somewhat automated. Driving or riding a bicycle are perfect examples of how the brain works in the background. We no longer have to focus on what we are doing to arrive home safely. Although if something out of the ordinary happens, our brain must focus back on the driving to ensure all is well.

I recently saw Bilton speak at the Dublin Web Summit and at least 70% of the audience tapped away at their laptops, iPads or smartphones while he spoke. Some were note-taking, some were checking out his book or his website, and others were busy tweeting, blogging or communicating online in some form or another. I’m sure most attendees thought they were listening to the talk, but I believe that their attention was split and not all would remember what was said. They inevitably had to experience the “zone in” and “zone out” of task-switching to some degree.

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What is Multitasking?

The term “multitasking” originated in the computer engineering industry. It was used to explain how a microprocessor can seem to process several tasks simultaneously. But in order for a single core processor to process tasks it actually has to “time share” the processor. Only one task can be processed at a time, but these tasks are rotated many times a second. With a multi-core processor, each core can perform a separate task simultaneously.

So the idea that we can work on more than one thing at once is actually a fallacy. In keeping with the original meaning of multitasking, we now know that the multiple tasks that we are attending to are actually sharing brain time. And there is always a price to be paid when switching tasks.

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Some research has shown multitasking to reduce productivity by 40%, but like everything in life it depends on what tasks — and the importance of full focus while doing it.

Conclusion

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere” –  Seneca, Spanish-born Roman Statesman and philosopher

If the tasks you are doing are relatively unimportant or mundane and don’t require undivided attention to complete, multitasking can help to get more done. But if you have an important job or one that requires particular attention or care, the best solution is to stay focused on it (and, at the very least, turn off your phone).

After all, it is necessary to be actually where you are in order to achieve the best results.

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The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

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