And yet multi-tasking is something we regard as a virtue or at least an accepted attribute of the modern life. Multi-tasking is a glorified skill at work. At home it has become the norm to use ‘two screens’ simultaneously as we enjoy watching TV and conversing on social media. There are a plenty of apps to ensure you are not “missing out”. Yet isn’t it true that when you are on a conference call and browsing the net at the same time, you cannot afterwards recall the details of the conversation? Similarly, watching The Great British Bake-Off and tweeting about “soggy bottoms” at the same time is exciting for a while, but it’s hard to remember who baked what and how it turned out.
In his article Multi-tasking: how to survive in the 21st century in FT Weekend, the economist Tim Harford cited troubling studies.
"David Strayer, a psychologist at the University of Utah, used a driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were chatting on a mobile phone to drivers who had drunk enough alcohol to be at the legal blood-alcohol limit in the US. Chatting drivers didn’t adopt the aggressive, risk-taking style of drunk drivers but they were unsafe in other ways. They took much longer to respond to events outside the car, and they failed to notice a lot of the visual cues around them. Strayer’s infamous conclusion: driving while using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk. Less famous was Strayer’s finding that it made no difference whether the driver was using a handheld or hands-free phone. The problem with talking while driving is not a shortage of hands. It is a shortage of mental bandwidth."
"In another study three psychologists, Karin Foerde, Barbara Knowlton and Russell Poldrack, recruited students to look at a series of flashcards with symbols on them, and then to make predictions based on patterns they had recognised. Some of these prediction tasks were done in a multitasking environment, where the students also had to listen to low- and high-pitched tones and count the high-pitched ones. While the students were equally competent at spotting patterns with or without the note-counting task, there was a cost attached to multi-tasking. When the researchers asked them more abstract questions about the patterns, the students struggled to answer them. They had successfully juggled both tasks in the moment - but they hadn’t learnt anything that they could apply in a different context.”
Tim Harford suggests that what we commonly call multi-tasking is better labelled as “task switching”. When we are working on a presentation, respond to emails and chat on an instant-messaging app, we switch from one activity to another. Rapid switching is undoubtedly distracting, and it is very tiring. Have you ever felt exhausted by the end of a working day when you’ve been very busy but have not actually achieved very much at all?
Constant switching makes it impossible to stay focussed. Facebook and Twitter notifications, SMS and WhatsApp messages do not help to get things done. That’s fine when you are paid just to ‘attend’ the office, but if you care about the work you produce, you need to focus. Last week I tried a free app called Pomodoro and found it very effective in keeping me on the task at hand for 25 minutes at a time, then ‘rewarding’ me with a 5 minute break. (You can set your own time intervals. Have a look at the iTunes / Google Play store or just use a timer on your phone.)
Still, why are we so prone to checking Facebook, Twitter or, dare I mention it, the right-hand side of the Daily Mail website? Executive life coaches from the Oxford Saïd Business School reckon that getting distracted is a way to rest after an accomplished task or to console yourself when you are doing even a mildly tedious job. The trouble with a gossip website is that you may be tempted to check it for a minute but then you end up stuck there for half an hour. A much better way to relax would be to stretch, use a foam roller or go for a walk but the problem with our corporate culture is that we constantly feel under pressure to be working. We are so ingrained with “face time” and “being busy” that even if your work is project-based and your performance is assessed by what you deliver, not the hours you’ve spent on it, it is still very hard to persuade yourself to enjoy a proper break. And so we never take our eyes off screens just in case the Big Brother is watching.
And yet I insist. Roll your shoulders, then your head, stretch your arms in front of you, then bring them up and over your head. Get off your chair and go get some water. (If you do a little dance on your way, you get a brownie point.) Let’s stop beating ourselves up and aim to be effective not just be. If it means going for a walk in the middle of the morning when you need a break, go for it.
Spending five minutes on my foam roller reminded me on another piece of research mentioned by Tim Harford. "The psychologist Shelley Carson and her student Justin Moore recently recruited experimental subjects for a test of rapid task switching. Each subject was given a pair of tasks to do: crack a set of anagrams and read an article from an academic journal. These tasks were presented on a computer screen, and for half of the subjects they were presented sequentially — first solve the anagrams, then read the article. For the other half of the experimental group, the computer switched every two-and-a-half minutes between the anagrams and the journal article, forcing the subjects to change mental gears many times. Unsurprisingly, task switching slowed the subjects down and scrambled their thinking. They solved fewer anagrams and performed poorly on a test of reading comprehension when forced to refocus every 150 seconds.
But the multi-tasking treatment did have a benefit. Subjects who had been task switching became more creative. To be specific, their scores on tests of “divergent” thinking improved. Such tests ask subjects to pour out multiple answers to odd questions. They might be asked to think of as many uses as possible for a rolling pin or to list all the consequences they could summon to mind of a world where everyone has three arms. Involuntary multitaskers produced a greater volume and variety of answers, and their answers were more original too."
Such findings aren’t very surprising. I used to work for someone who had a serious attention deficit disorder, constantly switching conversation from one subject to another, often causing a lot of anxiety for his very patient PA, who had to remind him about appointments, deadlines, etc. Yet he was incredibly creative coming up with solutions for his clients, throwing ideas which proved ingenious after hours of number crunching to back up his hunch.
As such, juggling multiple jobs (only too familiar for working parents or those who, like me, have a portfolio career) may be good for your creativity and divergent thinking. Test yourself by coming up with five ways to cook cauliflower.