Most people take pride in calling themselves multitaskers. Like other motherhood and apple pie topics, it has become a badge of honor to lay claim to the ability to do it even though there is not much proof that it works or even that it exists. Employers say they want people who can multitask, and the rest of us follow our fellow lemmings over the cliff of reality. Research shows that true multitasking is not only a myth, but it can be detrimental to attempt it. It’s not wrong to set a goal to mold a career by trying to develop abilities that are valuable to an employer, but it is also possible they don’t know what they want. If you read job descriptions to the letter, that truth becomes evident.
If you research the origins of multitasking, you’ll find that it began even before present-day computers existed. Multi-channel radio broadcasting allows one frequency on the dial to receive two distinct signals. Edwin Armstrong, the man who invented the FM radio, was the first to experiment with multiplexing in 1934. His experiments led to the concept we see today of electronically transmitting rapidly switched channels and then separating them into multiple distinct data sources. Voila! Surround sound! The ability to process several streams of data evolved into computers that turn these signals around in nanoseconds giving the illusion they are handling one consistent flow of information when, in fact, they don’t. It violates the laws of physics to think this is true.
The human brain is one of the most complicated computers we know. If electronic brains can simulate multitasking, why can’t ours?
An article in Forbes in 2014 concluded that multitasking can actually impair performance and even cause damage to the brain. It reported that research at Stamford University showed people trying to manage several streams of information at the same time were less productive than those who did not. Think beyond cell phone use while driving, and you can draw your conclusions. The studies showed that IQ scores went down by as much as 15 points in multitasking men. Further data from researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK showed that MRI scans of multitaskers had less brain density in the region of the brain associated with empathy and cognitive/emotional control. Without concluding that multitasking damages the brain, or the other way around, it does give us a clearer picture that it is not a healthy thing to do.
A brief from the American Psychological Association states that switching between complex tasks can adversely impact productivity. Repetitive switching between routine tasks is possible with some compromise in the final results. Still, considering all the differences in the processing of information by different people, it is impossible to know all the variables involved. We do want to assist human executive control by improving the interfaces between people and their machines, such as automobiles and aircraft. The hidden costs of mental blocks caused by task switching can be as much as 40% of their productive time.
Looking more closely at the correct definition of multitasking, what are the more desirable traits we need to offer to employers or ask for in potential employees?
- Attention to detail – If it is not possible to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, we need to focus on fine-tuning the ability to accomplish single tasks entirely without error.
- Ability to prioritize – When faced with multiple tasks on the To-Do List, we need to find logical reasons to place one higher on the list than the others.
- Deal with distraction – Even the least challenging task can become daunting if there is a constant barrage of conflicting information crowding out the critical considerations.
- Time management – Budgeting scarce resources for completion of a task includes, but is not limited to, the time necessary for successful completion.
This list is not all-inclusive, but it’s a starting place for job seekers and career changers to focus on attributes that are somewhere in the realm of reality than a nebulous multitasking concept. These characteristics are evident to even the narrow-minded employers who still think that they want to hire for the impossible. Enlightened leadership means recognizing the worth of individuals and the value of their contributions to the overall organizational goals. Now if we could only arrive at mutually satisfactory goals.