Multitasking: what was that about hats again?June 14th, 2010 by Rob Haitani
Is this technology making us unable to focus (except, ironically, on our iPhones)? It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where an executive concludes grimly that souls don’t materialize because people are “distracted from spiritual matters by everyday trivia.” After a dramatic pause, another asks, “What was that about hats again?”
Apparently, we evolved to react to stimuli–last guy to notice the panther didn’t breed. Novel stimuli actually provide a dopamine hit, explaining the addictive aspects of being plugged in. So wireless gadgets are like crack pipes for cyber-stimuli. iPads sell because they provide a purer high.
We crave stimuli, but also justify gadget addiction. Multitasking makes us more productive, right? Well, people can’t literally concentrate on two things simultaneously, like driving and texting. We’re really “task switching” when we IM and email “simultaneously.”
Unfortunately, studies have shown task switching inhibits rather than increases productivity. The research often consists of switching between small tasks like adding vs. multiplying numbers. You incur “switching costs” when you re-orient, so it’s more efficient to finish one task first.
But isn’t reality more complex? Checking mail while waiting in line doesn’t get you your latte any slower. Or if you get bored or fatigued, switching could theoretically increase efficiency. (And what about time-sensitive tasks?) That said, you’re probably less efficient in “squirrel chasing mode” than you think.
Well first, don’t trust people who say studies support sweeping conclusions like “web surfing helps memory.” If you actually read the studies and their methodologies, you often find narrower results than you expected.
Technology amplifies human tendencies, and isn’t inherently good or bad. But whatever the negatives, people dislike giving up benefits, so you might as well go with the flow. Food creates problems too, but you can advocate good cooking and fighting obesity at the same time.