The notion of miltitasking seems simple enough and easy to achieve for most people. On the MTR every day I see fellow passengers reading their Facebook newsfeed from their smartphones, while having their earphones plugged in, and trying to hold the handle in case the train stops abruptly (happens all the time). I call this an example of multitasking, passengers doing three things at a time and mastering it. Another example I can think of is me right now: as I am writing this exact blog post, I am listening to music, checking my Tumblr dashboard every ten minutes, drinking a cup of coffee, chatting with my friend via whatsapp, and trying to come up with a decent idea for this blog. However, there is one thing I can tell you: I am not good at multitasking. In fact, I stopped doing all of the above after fifteen minutes because it is simply not working for me. Before I elaborate, here is a video depicting an office worker trying to multitask:
As you can see from the video, the guy is not very successful at multitasking. Although the situation may be a bit exaggerated in his case, still it is impossible for me to multitask. In the video, the man explains that multitasking “is a myth” and that people are less efficient and more distracted when they are multitasking. He further quotes that our error rate goes up 50% and the work takes twice as long to finish the same task. He then invited Tim Jenkins, a co-founder of a business consulting firm to talk about multitasking further: Jenkins says that multitasking is a fallacy and when people are always online, they are always distracted, thus entering a very unproductive mode. Although the video is a promotion for a new book called “Brain Rules”, I think the facts and situations discussed in this video are quite accurate, at least in my case.
Here is another video elaborating on multitasking, raising a number of intriguing questions, for example are young people better at multitasking than old people, is multitasking really necessary, and does multitasking come with a cost.
From the video, we can see that multitasking is not as glamorous as it seems: no one really shares attention between two tasks, we are all switching attention between two tasks. And from the video, it concludes that multitasking comes at a cost, that everytime we switch attention, we forget where we were in the first task and what our goals were. This sounds really convincing to me, as if I have been through all that already. Sometimes when I listen to music while I revise, I will suddenly snap out of daydreaming, and find that I am just sitting there idly listening to music without paying any real attention to the words, even though I have been staring at the same lines for nearly half an hour. If I really want to get something done, I cannot have any distractions, not even the TV playing in the background or classical music, which some people claim to help them finish their work (I tried, didn’t work).
The video raises one interesting question worth looking into: do people these days need to multitask? I am not talking about Wall Street businessmen or any other high pressure jobs in the city, but normal teenagers and young adults, who seems to be very good at multitasking on the surface, and are multitasking all the time. I think we are all prone to what technology consultant Linda Stone describes as “continuous partial attention”, where people are constantly, but only partially, attending to the information from their communication devices, motivated by the fear of “missing something”. Or perpetual contact, a similar concept where people continuously aware of what their friends and contacts are doing. The picture belows depicts what people in the US are simultaneously doing while using their mobile phones:
Over half of the respondents listen to music or watch TV while using their mobile phones, other options like surfing the net and watching movies also gain almost half the votes. So what do they use their mobile phones for? What is so important that they have to use it while reading a book or watching a movie, where you are supposed to be paying full attention to it? My guess is that they are probably just chatting with friends online, using mobile applications like Whatsapp.
Whatsapp itself has its own affordances and constraints when a person is multitasking. For example, it has a clear list of people we are talking to, creating attentional tracks that we can clearly distinguish from one another. Also, the chat history is saved automatically, so if we lose track of what we are talking about, we can simply scroll up and read all the previous conversations. It helps us to focus our attention on this particular conversation we are having with this particular person. Furthermore, the use of one-word responses and emoticons can help us appear like we are paying attention when we are actually not, just like the picture below:
There are constraints, though. With the aforementioned perpetual contact at work, we are continually receiving information about our friends and contacts, whether we want to or not. It is true that we can “mute” our whatsapp chat groups, but only up to one week only. Since our mobile phones probably stay with us within reaching distance 24 hours a day, constant whatsapp alerts can be very annoying, and more importantly, damaging to us when we are trying to focus on our tasks on hand.
I think most people nowadays are under the illusion that they can multitask when they actually cannot. Quality of the work will be compromised when one multitasks. I think different people can find different solutions regarding multitasking, but I for one cannot. Multitasking is not one I am good at, sadly.