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The Myth Of Multitasking

It’s a dog-eat-dog world. Or so I’ve heard. A lot of us face constant pressure to perform better. To handle ever increasing workloads and cut through huge streams of data coming in to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff. As such, many of us tend to do a whole lot of things at the same time. Or so we think.

As much as we’d like to think we’re doing more than one thing at a time, the painful fact of the matter is that our brain has evolved to excel at task-switching among a set of tasks. We don’t actually simultaneously process multiple foreground tasks. We deal with things linearly. Supporting that claim is the proven fact that our left brain is a linear processor, and it’s by virtue of that evolutionary truth that we understand the concept of time at all. Our right brain is all about the elemental Now experience. Whereas the left brain is sequential, the right brain features random access to its memories. The left brain occupies itself with all the linear processing involved with memories, evaluations and prognostications.

To put it slightly differently, the right brain is the experiential mind; the left brain is the procedural mind. The right brain is responsible for real-time data acquisition. The left brain processes that into a timeline of which we can impose some order; otherwise, we’d constantly be in a state of sensory overwhelm.

Linear thinking isn’t a bad thing. It enables our conscious mind to have a Critical Factor. Via our left-brain-linear-thought, we can pull up memories and evaluate our experiences to learn from them. We can analyze our current situation, compare it against past experience and formulate a future plan of action. This is All Good Stuff.

I think the task-switching versus multitasking labelling is all about ego and bragging rights. Our modern cultures almost all praise the ability to juggle a whole bunch of balls without dropping any of them. To be able to handle whatever is thrown at you is a brilliant plus for any job, and it enables one to command a better wage. The problem is that it’s just bunk. We don’t multitask. Period. And I don’t care whether you’re male or female; the conscious mind is a linear processor.

Perhaps the most obvious proof that we don’t multitask is that we think in separate thoughts. If I’ve been mulling over my bank balance and also considering my shopping for the evening, how do you suppose my thoughts would come out?

Choice 1: “Dang, I hope I have enough money in the bank to cover that cheque till that client pays their invoice. Oh, I’ve gotta remember to buy kiwi for my baby!”

Choice 2: “Dang, I hope I have enough money in the buy kiwi (!) client invoice is in the bank.”

Choice 2 is obviously nonsensical because it does not delineate between relevant thoughts. It describes a holistic thought process. Choice 1 describes a linear thought process. Now, don’t get me wrong, our brains DO multitask, which is why you can breathe, enjoy a beating heart and think at the same time. We simultaneously experience some external stimulus and our subconscious digs up memories from the energized matrix and then filters them via our linear processor. “This was a past experience that I enjoyed very much. This new experience looks very similar. I think we should proceed and see how it goes.”

Our conscious, linear processing, however, goes from single task to single task. I can’t move from thinking about my cheque book until I’ve reached some sort of recognizable breakpoint. Once I’ve set that breakpoint and pushed my short-term memory content onto the stack, I can replace that memory with different stuff, such as kiwi fruit to be purchased on my way home from the office. Once that subroutine has been dealt with, we can return to earlier processing or move on to other stuff.

Our processing falters when we get a lot of new incoming stuff or are dealing with complex tasks during interruptions. Either situation will create a rapid-fire set of interrupts in our routine processing. New interrupts, by definition, drag us away from what we are doing. If it’s a complex task, our Critical Factor will have placed it high on our priority list and we will tend to try to dismiss the new task and return to the old one. The greater the stream of interrupts, the more disruptive it is to our processing and we might even get upset over the inability to focus on what needs to be accomplished.

Are Women Better Multitaskers?

Sadly, no. Women may very well be better task-switchers, but I have not personally seen compelling evidence to suggest that this is true. Certainly, there have been studies done to suggest that women juggle multiple tasks better than men, but my empirical experience has been that it’s more a matter (for either sex) of developing sound methodologies to capitalize on strengths, diminish weaknesses and reduce interrupts to the point that productivity is optimized.

Anecdotally, I’m reminded of the long-standing relationship issue between men and women whereby men come home from the office wanting to find a lover waiting for them. The woman, on the other hand, has been playing mommy and coordinating countless disparate issues for the entire day. Being a lover is the last thing on her mind. And here I propose that if women were truly multitasking, there would be no conflict between the roles of mother/homemaker and lover: A multitasking individual would easily handle both roles simultaneously. Her problem, therefore, is not that of taking on an additional role, but of replacing one role with an emotionally contrary one. Ergo, task switching.

So, that’s the grim news: Whether you’re male or female, you’re a single-tasking, task-switching individual. Oh, that’s also the good news. Knowing that you can only focus on one thing at a time, I propose that you take on a different way of working. Capitalize on your strength of single-task focusing and try to avoid distractions. That means that you drive when you’re driving. Talk on the phone and text when doing ONLY that. When you’re having a conversation with a co-worker, PLEASE don’t claim how much you’re listening while you’re busy tappity on your keyboard writing your e-mail.

Here are a few links that might provide some interesting reading.

Drivers on Cell Phones Are as Bad as Drunks
Left Brain Functioning
Why Right-Brainers Will Rule This Century

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