Saturday, November 23, 2013

16. Can We Really Multitask?

Today, multitasking is one of the most common job responsibilities that one can find among various job descriptions. Everyone, from cashiers, to sales associates, to communications specialists, is expected to be able to work on multiple projects simultaneously. But is it really possible to do quality work while handling several tasks at the same time?

Image via Careerealism

We have recently touched this question in my linguistics class, when we were talking about the role of attention in language acquisition. It turns out that human attention is highly selective, meaning that we can efficiently perform just one attention demanding task at a time. In fact, researchers say that multitasking is a myth, providing real data to prove their point. "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," says neuroscientist Earl Miller.

While scientists analyze complex brain scans, we can do some simple tests ourselves to see if multitasking is possible. Have you ever tried to text while walking on a busy street? I have. Some would think of it as a sort of multitasking, but it really isn't. Since there are multiple obstacles on the street, we usually stop texting for a moment to see where we are going so that we won't trip. This means that we are not actually performing two tasks continuously, so we are not really multitasking. Another example is talking to someone while writing. This is nearly impossible to do - you would either make a mistake in writing or say something that doesn't make sense.

What we really do while successfully performing multiple tasks at the same time is switching between them really quickly, which gives the illusion of multitasking. The ability to quickly shift your attention from one project to another and to accomplish each of them effectively is exactly what employers are looking for in applicants.

However, true multitasking does exist, but it requires two or more tasks to be compatible. For example, listening to a professor and taking notes are two compatible activities, which is why most students can perform them simultaneously without a problem. So if you are not very good at switching your focus really quickly, try matching compatible tasks for better efficiency.

Most people presume that multitasking is the performance of multiple tasks at the same time, but while it is true for computers, the human brain is simply not able to function as smoothly and quickly as a processor. I believe employers should explain what they really mean by this term in order to avoid any confusion among their employees and prevent them from making mistakes or stressing out, while they are trying to handle several tasks simultaneously.

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