This week I unitask (albeit unsuccessfully)
Dear Reader, I think it’s time I stepped down from the lofty stead upon which I’m often perched on this page. And be honest with you. As I write I have nine screens open on my computer, which I’ve been toggling between incessantly as I research this column, as well as email and Skype. I’ve just ridden into my office while listening to lectures on my ipod from the nutrition course I’m studying by correspondence. This was after I returned three calls while hanging out my washing. I only ever seem to return calls on washing day.
In short, I have not been unitasking. Which, given the scope of this column, makes me a tedious fraud. Lump me, if you will, in the same basket where I like to put snooty hippies and spiritual materialists.
Worse, as I share my ludicrous multi-tasking ways with you I find myself feeling superior. Which women of my generation tend to do when it comes to multitasking. We brag we can find the butter in the fridge. And define ourselves by our ability to juggle kids’ breakfast bickerings and Blackberrys and oversized Starbuck coffees. While men – the poor things – struggle to tie their shoelaces and stick their tongue out at the same time.
But my failure this week in testing a life-bettering technique shouldn’t stop me from sharing with you the virtues of unitasking (as researched across eight screens). By way of an abstract, multitasking doesn’t work. Full. Stop. But it saves time, I hear you cry. Actually, no. A University of Michigan study found it takes more time to toggle among tasks than it does to complete them one at a time. This is because it takes considerable time for the prefrontal cortex to refocus back to where a task was left off.
I know, I know, all you proud multitaskers out there will probably want to argue that you’re better multitaskers than the average person used in these kind of studies (who may or may not multitask). Don’t be so sure. Stanford researchers last year found that heavy multitaskers (gits like me who choose it as a way of life, wear it as a badge of honour) are actually worse at task switching than the rest of humanity. Heavy multitaskers were unable to shut out irrelevant information and stimuli as they toggled, and got bogged down and discombobulated by it all. “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” said one researcher. And descended into a brain tizz.
Alright, alright, you say. At least let us poor mulitaskers lay claim to being more creative for all our dynamic switching and seeking. Um, not possible. Another study found that when someone manages to multitask well, it’s because one or more of the tasks is being done on autopilot. Multitaskers resort to rote to cope. So creativity, subtlety of thought and intimacy is lost. Hands up who hasn’t been abrasive or dismissive when multitasking between three activities and a conversation with a co-worker? Or found themselves unable to access inspired thinking and defaulting to a routine solution? Yeah, thought so.
By way of final defense you might argue that with practice we can become better multitaskers. I advise you don’t. The part of the brain responsible for refocusing back to a task – the prefrontal cortex – is also the part most damaged by prolonged “feeling out of control” stress. Multitasking, of course, makes even the most hardened toggler frazzled. So the more we multitask, the worse we get at multitasking. Sigh.
Perhaps the most alarming factoid I read on the matter was from a paper published in Psychology Today last month that compared multitasking to eating empty calories. When we eat a Krispy Kreme it switches on the reward-seeking dopamine circuitry, which creates an addictive crave cycle (due to the lack of nourishing reward from said empty calories). Ditto when we consume empty neural calories like Tweeting and Googling and stimuli toggling. When done together, it creates a dopamine overload, or mental hyperactivity, just like when you down a doughnut. There’s no reward (for instance, a focused sense of closure to each task) so not only do we become flabby of thought, we also become addicted.
Which means becoming a unitasker is as elusive as dieting. But, as they say, one step at a time.