Live life, one thing at a time

Live life, one thing at a time

It is a common misnomer to assume that multi-tasking is a great skill, finds out Mala Ashok.

We have all heard a little ditty “One thing at a time and that done well, is a very good rule as many can tell.” Life, a few decades ago, seemed so simple back then that one wonders why this exhortation even existed! Just imagine. There were no cell phones, no emails, no Facebook, no Twitter... I can just see today’s youngsters saying “What did you do?” We had lots to do, thank you very much; though for the life of me, I cannot remember how we earlier managed without all these doodads and the technology at our disposal.

Indeed technology has given us a lot and simplified life a great deal. But, has it really made our lives simple? While it may have simplified our lives in several ways, it has also complicated it by creating a dozen ways to compete for our attention! Enter the devil, multi-tasking. You’ll be lucky if you’re able to read this piece without your phone ringing at least once, and receiving at least a couple of SMS messages, which in turn alert you to some Tweets or to your wall on Facebook.

In short, no single task can be completed without another task vying for your attention. If I wonder at your ability to retain your train of thought as these actions fight for a space in your brain, you will more than likely tell me blithely, “Don’t worry, I’m great at multi-tasking.”

Well, some new research is out that questions the assumption that multi-tasking is great. Carnegie Mellon University’s “Human Computer Interaction Lab” has researched the issues of distraction and their effects. In essence, the question is “Does distraction matter – do interruptions make us kind of dumb?” The surprising answer according to the research is, “Yes, it does!”

Early research suggests that multitasking has an adverse effect and confirms that: if you do two things at once, both suffer. More importantly, “multi-tasking is a misnomer. Except in rare cases, one does not really “multi” task; one merely hops from one task to another.
When you are reading your email, trying to talk on the phone, and looking for a lost slip of paper, what you are really doing is something known among scientists as “rapid toggling between tasks.”

As we all know intuitively, switching costs something no matter what the switch is. When the switch involves your brain’s capability, granted it is difficult to assess the value of this cost of switching.

The University of California has tried to quantify the costs of this switch from task to task. By considering office workers and their typical work patterns, Gloria Mark, the lead researcher, noted that while the typical interruption in office work comes in 11 minutes, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after being interrupted. More importantly, the quality of work has not been evaluated and there is reason to believe it is suspect.

The Carnegie Mellon team designed a test to quantify the brain power lost due to interruptions. The experiment was essentially a very simple one. 135 subjects participated in the test, where they were asked to read a passage and answer questions based on the reading. At the end of the experiment, they were graded on how well they answered the questions.

The subjects were divided into three. The first group, merely completed the test, i.e. answered the questions. The other two were told that there was a likelihood of their being contacted for further instructions, by SMS. For the first part of the test, the second and third groups were disturbed twice. Then a second different test was conducted in which only the second group was interrupted, whereas the third group waited in vain for an interruption that never materialized. They now labeled the groups, ‘Control,’ ‘Interrupted’, and ‘On high alert.’

The surprising results revealed that the results for the second and third group were not only very bad but those who thought of themselves as multi-taskers did even worse! During the first part of the test, both interrupted groups answered 20 percent fewer questions than the control group! Think about it. That’s like going, say from 75% to 55% in a school test! While 75% looks great, 55% looks barely average.

This was essentially the simplest test. Further research did suggest that with experience, the brain adapted to the possibility of an interruption.

Clifford Nass of Stanford also did some tests on multitasking and he says we are programmed to be unable to resist the pull of multitasking! He defines this as being “suckers for irrelevancy.” He suggests that not being able to ignore that new SMS, or phone call while we are working might in fact be robbing us of brain power. However, much of the testing, to confirm this hypothesis, is in its infancy.

So, till the verdict is out, go ahead and multi-task. But if you are feeling stressed, you might want to second guess multi-tasking. Maybe doing one thing at a time isn't that bad, afterall.

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