In recent years, multitasking is a quality that has been much glorified and sought-after, whether one is a student, an employee or just a regular person living a normal day-to-day life. It is considered that those who can do multiple tasks at the same time are more efficient and in control of their work, and they can accomplish more. Thus, multitasking is something that people have sought to indulge in, whether they need to do so or not.

Since Covid-19 changed the way the world worked, multitasking is something that most people have found themselves indulging in. Workplaces and educational institutions have worked with complete or partial stay-at-home orders and people have had to function in different environments than their usual ones. A teacher conducts a video lesson in the bedroom while a child is using another gadget to attend his or her own class. Another parent would be working on the laptop, completing regular office work or talking to a business associate on the phone while a baby is wailing in the background.

And in between, all these people would be interacting with each other, sharing the same space or doing a house chore. And even if they are not, just the fact that other family members are around, probably eating, chatting, sleeping or watching TV, it is enough to distract them into joining them at these activities while carrying on with their school or official work. All this leads to multitasking, which many people claim to carry on very well. But is multitasking really as effective and productive as its advocates claim it to be?

Well, maybe not. New researches and studies are throwing doubt on multitasking being the super-productive way of doing things. In fact, studies have shown that multitasking reduces a person’s productivity by up to 40 percent. This is because our brains are not made for doing multiple tasks at the same time, with the same level of efficiency.

Multitasking may make you feel like you are able to do more at the same time, but it eventually affects the quality of work that you do

When we attempt to do lots of things at the same time, such as taking an online class, checking notifications on the phone and nibbling on a sandwich, we move back and forth between tasks, therefore shifting our attention from one to the other. Even after doing something seemingly as simple as eating, when we turn our attention back to what the teacher has been saying, we need to force our brain to focus on what is currently going on in the online class and to catch up with where we left off. But not everyone has the ability to get their focus back very quickly. And it also means we will need to backtrack every time we switch tasks, to repeat a bit of what we were previously doing to find out where we last left off.

Ultimately, this makes the person less effective than they would have been had they concentrated on one thing at a time, finishing off what was started first before moving on to something else.

According to Dr Susan Weinschenk, a behavioural scientist, multitasking isn’t even the right word for when we are involved in multiple tasks. “What really happens is task-switching, and it takes more time to switch tasks than stick with them until you finish.”

Clearly, multitasking is bad for productivity. It is just like having many tabs open on the browser of the computer, when we can only keep one open and functional in front of us at one time. The others are just lingering in the background, sometimes calling for our attention. And when we click on the tab at the back, we leave a task unfinished in the first one to start another. But on coming back to the first tab, we will have to spend a few moments trying to remember what we were last doing, what were our thoughts regarding it and what we plan to do next. So doesn’t this eventually make us less productive over all?

And even if we do manage to finish all the tasks together and within time, chances are that the quality of the work would not be so good as it would have been if we were just handling one task at a time. Moving between different tasks actually leads to a decline in productivity, not an increase, as it had been thought by the advocate of multitasking. It will also eventually lead to what is known as ‘a burnout’ as our brain cannot handle too much pressure for too long.

The fact that different gadgets have made tasks so much faster and within easy access has also added to this culture of multitasking. Since all we need to do is move our fingertips and we can get so much done, access so much information and connect with so many people at the same time, we tend to think that we are good at multitasking.

Yes, while we may be able to multitask, we may not be able to do all the different tasks as well as we would have had we attempted them one at a time. The advancement in technology and communication does make us more capable of physically multitasking than before, but it doesn’t really help our brain become better at handling more information at the same time or concentrating on it all together.

Researcher Zhen Wang, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, conducted a study that was published in the Journal of Communication. After completing an extensive study with students, she came to the conclusion: “There’s this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive. But they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive — they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work.”

Researchers recruited 32 college students who agreed to carry a cellphone-like device and report on their activities three times each day for four weeks, including why they used various media sources and what they got out of it.

“They felt satisfied not because they were effective at studying, but because the addition of TV made the studying entertaining. The combination of the activities accounts for the good feelings obtained,” Wang concluded.

So basically, she feels people aren’t very good at media multitasking — like reading a book while watching TV — but do it anyway because it makes them feel good.

So those of us who think we can keep doing things on our cellphones while carrying on with more serious tasks, such as studying, it is time to realise that this will eventually effect the quality of our performance, even if multitasking will increase the quantity of work we accomplish at a certain time.

Published in Dawn, Young World, December 19th, 2020

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