Robyn Pearce: Multi-tasking more damaging than smoking dope

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

There’s a common belief that women are better at multi-tasking than guys. It’s only partly true. In reality, if we try to do more than one thing at a time neither gender is effective at reasonably complex tasks that require concentrated brain power.

Here’s an example of effective multi-tasking:

I went for a run this morning – one of my preferred methods of keeping reasonably fit. It was a clear-sky warm spring morning. The country air was fresh and wholesome, the birds were chirping, a couple of dogs barked and a few early workers zipped by in their cars with neighbourly waves.

At the point of turn-around I spotted a pretty patch of wild flowers so stopped to pick a small bunch. Holding the flowers downwards to minimise bumping, I got back into my (slow) running stride. About 200 metres further my eye landed on an empty beer can and discarded pizza box. Picking up litter when I can is one of my community values so, knowing there was an appropriate drop off place 50 metres along the road, I did the right thing.

And there was one more activity – as I ran I rehearsed some French verbs (I’ve been learning French for over 2 ½ years now). It was a great distraction factor – the power poles seemed to go past much faster!

So, in one 40 minute time-slot there was exercise, appreciation of the joys of spring, neighbourly contact, French homework, a simple and informal addition to the beauty of my home and a contribution to the community environment.

I was multi-tasking but the only real brain power used was in rehearsing the French verbs. The whole episode felt both effective and rewarding.

Now here’s an example of ineffective multi-tasking:

Bill was at his desk in his open plan office. He was part-way through a report for the boss when one of his colleagues came up. ‘My computer’s having a bad hair day. You’re good at this stuff. Can I borrow you for a couple of minutes?’

Sighing, Bill got up and went to help. 5 minutes later, as he sat back down at his desk, an email notifier flashed across his screen. He took a quick look – Marketing wanted some figures for an urgent press release. So he attended to that.

Forty-five minutes later he finally got back to his report but he’d lost the flow: it took him ages to get back into action.

That pattern is experienced by many people every day, all day long. Do we wonder why so many people go home frustrated with the volume of activity they’ve achieved?

Many of the tasks modern office workers do are attempted from a multi-tasking perspective – and it’s NOT efficient.

As we dodge from task to task we’re engaging in a process called “contact switching.” The outcome of this is that it’s harder to stay focused and harder to think deeply. We skip across the surface of many different pieces of information and many different tasks but achieve no great depth in any one.

If we’re desperately trying to deal with more input than we can comfortably handle, the brain and body get locked into a circle where the brain’s frontal lobes lose their sophistication. We get black and white thinking and start to lose perspective and the ability to see possible nuances and variations. We struggle to stay organised, to set priorities and to manage our time. We have a constant low level feeling of panic and guilt.

David Meyer, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, a leading expert on how we focus, is convinced that chronic long-term distraction is as dangerous as cigarette smoking to our health.

In 2007 Dr Gwen Wilson at the University of London compared a group who worked in a distracted environment to one that didn’t. The distracted group’s IQ dropped by 10 points compared to the non-distracted group. To put that into context she then compared it with research that’s been done around smoking marijuana. A lot of research over a long period of time indicates it’s not good for us; it kills brain cells and drops our IQ. The question is, how much? The fascinating thing is – it is only 4 points.

Solution – not to take up smoking dope! Rather, be very vigilant on reducing interruptions and distractions, often masquerading as multi-tasking.

NZ Herald

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