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Multitasking, Switchtasking and Background Tasking


Multitasking is inefficient, unproductive and if it doesn’t get you fired, it probably should. That’s been the reaction to the increasing tendency, especially among young people, to do more than one thing at the same time. They — we — surf the Web, write documents, complete calculations, text friends, listen to music and make phone calls all at the same time. The fingers of one hand might be tapping a keyboard while the thumb on the other hand squeezes out an SMS message and our ears are taking in our favorite tunes from Pandora.

It looks like we’re being hugely efficient, and getting a massive amount done at the same time. In fact, say the experts, we’re not multitasking at all. We’re “switchtasking,” moving from one job to another without giving any one of them the attention they need — and losing time with each shift.

“What we are really doing is switching back and forth between two tasks rapidly, typing here, paying attention there, checking our ‘crackberry’ here, answering voicemail there, back and forth, back and forth at a high rate,” says productivity expert Dave Crenshaw, author of  The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done. “It is these switches that cause people to lose time. In this way, switchtasking causes us to be exponentially less productive…. Keep this up over a long period of time, and you have deeply engrained habits that cause stress and anxiety and dropped responsibilities and a myriad of productivity and focus problems.”

It’s a position that’s been supported by a number of studies, some of which have shown that the more you multitask the worse your brain function. In 2009, researchers at Stanford University asked a mixture of light and heavy multitaskers to try to recall the positions of red rectangles at the same time that they were being distracted by the addition of random blue rectangles. The researchers consistently found that the high multitaskers performed worse and were more likely to be distracted than the low multitaskers. The more people multitasked, the less able they were to sort relevant information from irrelevant interference.

Dave Crenshaw’s Tips to Beat Multitasking Temptation

Take control over technology 

Your cell phone ringer (even on vibrate) doesn’t need to be on all the time. You can turn off email notification on your computer as well. Become master over the nagging beeps and buzzes by creating some silence.

Schedule what you can schedule 

Set regular times in the day and week to check your voicemail and email. Let others know you will be using that schedule so they know when to expect a reply.

Focus on the person 

When you switchtask with a computer, you simply lose efficiency. But if you switchtask on a human being, you additionally damage a relationship. Be present, listen carefully, and make sure everything has been taken care of before moving on.

Multitaskers are Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

Some experts have gone even further, comparing the loss in ability caused by multitasking to that of alcohol use. They’ve called for texting while behind the wheel to be treated with the same seriousness as drunk driving. And there’s certainly no question that constantly reaching for your cell phone during a romantic date will eventually crash a relationship.

So the verdict seems to be in: the more you try to do at the same time, the less you actually get done and the less able you are to integrate, sort and recall all that data that you’re processing from all those different sources. The results are always a loss in efficiency, sometimes a loss of a relationship and occasionally even dangerous.

But before you pull out earphones and shut down your browser, it’s worth noting that not all multitasking is the same. Even Dave Crenshaw distinguishes between switchtasking and what he calls “background tasking.”

“Background tasking is when you do something mindless and mundane in the background,” he explains. “Examples of background tasking include starting your copy machine on a large print job while you answer email, or watching TV and exercising at the same time. Background tasking is actually a fairly efficient way to operate.”

So some types of multitasking is okay and experiments that show the costs of multitasking can also bear little relationship to the way that multitasking is done in real life, or its benefits. It’s possible that people who are likely to multitask are also more likely to lose focus but it’s also possible that when we do lose focus, we give it to something equally valuable. Multitaskers are more likely to be reading an important article at the same time as writing an article than they are to be avoiding blue rectangles.

A Little Music Can Help

A more recent study even suggests that when multitaskers listen while completing a task, their productivity improves. Volunteers in  Hong Kong were set a visual search task but some were also given a short noise that indicated when the target object changed color. Researchers found that the volunteers who tended to multitask the most, by listening to listening to sounds at the same time as they used their eyes, performed best when they worked accompanied by a short pip noise. Made to work in silence and they had worse results than the low multitaskers.

Those who media multitasked the most tended to be more efficient at multisensory integration,” said the researchers in a press release. “It appears that their ability to routinely take in information from a number of different sources made it easier for them to use the unexpected auditory signal in the task with tone, leading to a large improvement in performance in the presence of the tone… Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing.”

The challenge for freelancers hoping to maximize their efficiency — and get through a day comfortably but without costly distractions — will be to know when they’re harmlessly background tasking and when they’re expensively switchtasking. If you’re used to listening to music while you work then turning it off might actually damage your productivity. But if you really want to get things done, and not crash your clients, you might want to avoid texting while you’re typing or designing.


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