Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Why multitasking simply doesn’t work for anyone

Are you proud of being a multitasking person? Studies show you shouldn’t. In fact, not only you, in fact, switch-task, but you damage your brain as well. Finally, I never thought how multitasking could influence the way we perceive the world around us.

Multitasking doesn't work

While reading a book by Cal Newport on “Deep Work,” he mentions Clifford Nass, a psychologist at Stanford University, saying

”So we have scales that allow us to divide up people into people who multitask all the time and people who rarely do, and the differences are remarkable. People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand… they’re pretty much mental wrecks.”

Ouch! I got curious and puzzled about his assessment and went on to see his TED talk, which I add at the end of this post.

The argument resonated and I remembered much of the things I did as a kid that I don’t see my kids doing. And I remembered what my parents did when I was young that I don’t see myself doing. Technology has a profound impact on society and culture. We all know that. But I never thought how far it could go.

In the acknowledgments of my Ph.D., I remembered a thought of Philip Hefner from his book “Technology and Human Becoming” that more important than what we do with the technology we develop, is what we become. And if I’m rigorous in my observations, we are becoming isolated, craving for irrelevance beings while thinking we’re more connected than ever and immersed in relevant things.

A study Nass made with kids showed that multitasking revealed

  • use media when face-to-face
  • feel less normal
  • more bad influencers
  • less sleep

With adults, it may not be that different on most points.

But fortunately, becoming is always a process we can improve with decisions, reflections, and self-control. Although the media today challenge this. Here are 3 ways I’m trying to avoid damaging my brain with multitasking.

 

Learn focus during dull moments

If I’m waiting for any reason, and in this world, we have a lot of them (lines, traffic, call on hold, even a keynote lecture with unintelligible slides), instead of picking up my smartphone to check emails and social networking, I observe what surrounds me. Look at people and interact if that’s the case.

I replace the small techno-screen by the grand life-screen surrounding me.

 

Scheduled uni-tasking instead of random multitasking

When I multitask, I thought it was the best way to get things done. However, I always wondered why I still had so many things to do. Well… I have a lot of stuff to do, but studies show when I multitask, in fact, I switch-task and take more time to do each thing. So, the effect is precisely the opposite of my intentions.

I’m trying to think in advance what is more important and focus my attention the best I can on that task alone. Even if the purpose is advancing in a task, not finishing it.

 

Meditate productively

Cal Newport proposed a new kind of meditation I’m trying.

Productive meditation.

He says

”The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally – walking, jogging, driving, showering – and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.”

It can be an article outline, or a new project idea, or a new experimental strategy or technique. It takes time to get used to it, but I think it’s worthy.


Question: have you ever thought about how multitasking may affect your relations with others and your productivity?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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