I can SO Multitask!

I can multitask. Sorry to disappoint you but I can. I don’t always do it well and I don’t always do it because some things require focus but I can do it. And let me tell you something, I am sick and tired of people telling me I can’t.

The very first internet scuffle that ever happened to me involved this same old saw. The basic tenet was “How can you work when I see you on Twitter all day?” Then it bothered me, because I was worried it was true but I defended myself by pointing out that while I hadn’t grown up with social media, I had grown up in a house full of kids and using computers. I, even then, had a small baby, two rambunctious kindergarten age boys and was undergoing remodeling projects.

Now there is Skype, Facebook, Google Chat, Google Voice, my blog and website, the blogs and sites and social accounts of at least 6 clients at any given time plus fracking Pinterest, a hobby blog I’ve started, speaking engagements, long-term projects like videos, slideshows, white papers and webinar prep. Plus we’re still remodeling. I also am a partner in several ventures that require my time, money and expertise and not all of them are HR related. I can multitask and multitask well because I HAVE to.

Which is not to say I don’t understand where the criticisms come from. Jason Seiden recently mentioned that when he’s looking to hire someone, he doesn’t want to hear that they do eleventeen different things with their time. He wants them doing one thing and focusing on one client (ostensibly HIM) at a time. Fair enough. Which is why I don’t often trot out my laundry list of to-do items for prospective clients. It’s scary, it’s dirty, it’s overwhelming and it shows that I care about more than your project in my whole life world. I’m okay with that, you might not be. I can accept that you would prefer to think of me as one dimensional, after all, I am there to do a service.

Glen Cathey, another smart and seemingly efficient person recently tweeted

When you say you’re a great multi-tasker, here’s what you’re really saying: “I’m great at being busy but unproductive.” :-)

I simply don’t agree. I think that there is a time and place for highly focused, “head down” thinking and creating and there is also a time for multi-tasking. And even though this transcript would say I am the worst offender of ALL, I really do believe I am good at it. In fact, I might go so far as to say that certain people are bred for and evolving toward being better at it. It seems to be an adaptation to our environment.

For example in the study cited in this radio show, they very explicitly state that they did not study people while they were multi-tasking just afterward, which…okay. But even if they had, what is the control group for this? Were there studies done in the past where people were measured doing just one task for comparison’s sake? And PS, we’re studying college kids, that have for all intents and purposes grown up in the information age and who are meant to be learning the stuff their lives will depend on.

And methinks that we’re measuring the wrong things in any case. If you use multi-tasking  to learn or to create, yeah you are probably using a hammer to carve a melon, or whatever that saying is. Another study (sorta) pointed out by Cathey was conducted by an MIT professor. I haven’t read the book (no time) but I did read the interview transcript and what it seemed like was one smart and insightful woman’s thoughts on her own life and the lives and connectedness of those around her. I didn’t see anything that was not based on perception.

I appreciate the insight of all these smart college professors and researchers and perhaps they have a point, that college students need to cut down on the multi-tasking. After all, this Lifehacker article puts it very well:

If the tasks you are doing are relatively unimportant or mundane and don’t require undivided attention to complete, multitasking can help to get more done. But if you have an important job or one that requires particular attention or care, the best solution is to stay focused on it (and, at the very least, turn off your phone).

YES! Absolutely. And I think that’s the point that all these people miss. If you multitask all the time, surely your brain is never going to be useful when it’s time to go down in the basement and LEARN or STUDY or WRITE. The people they are studying don’t seem to be doing that. They think that if you google chat and watch How I Met Your Mother while cleaning out a CSV file or using Card Munch to deal with your contacts, you can do the same things while trying to create a suitable outline for a 40 page paper. Not so. Any grown up can tell you that.

I’d prefer to see a study that measures the effect of how I do my job, manage my family, remodel my house, engage with my kids, write a book, manage a new website, juggle and please clients and make time for the things I love, like singing, dancing, exercising, watching TV, reading, cooking, sewing and decorating. I don’t need any blue rectangles or any fancy college to tell me that I am doing it RIGHT, and the life described above requires certain tools at certain times.

Two of those tools are focus and discipline. Another one of those tools is multitasking. Now, I do have some science-y bits here somewhere, hold on. AH! here:

Multitasking is not a myth, its all in the definition and understanding of how computational engines work – the brain is a great example of an intriguing computational engine . To use a technology analogy, a computer operating system on a very rudimentary level is a computational engine. It contains among other things a scheduler (aka task management) and engine. Multitasking inherently means providing workloads to a computational engine in thin slices of time on that engine. Nothing else can run on the engine concurrently within the context of the thinest slice of time available to all workloads. A scheduler typically swaps workloads in and out of that engine as the workloads allocated time slice is completed. The Scheduler also prioritizes those workloads. So I think that is very similar to what a live human brain does. Obviously in both instances when you have large number of workloads you may actually experience so much overhead in the scheduler that very little actual computational engine resources get assigned to the workloads that have “real work” and most gets directed at the scheduler (management overhead tasks). The scheduler has to use computional engine time as well to get its work done – its a workload as well. When the scheduler activity dominates all other activity this is known in technology terms as THRASHING. This is exactly what is showing up in research related to humans and their workloads. The switching going on takes up an enormous amount of time/energy in direct relation to the number of workloads. And the relation is likely non-linear. As more task are added on your schedule to be done concurrently there is diminishing returns to scale. At the other extreme , say only 1 workload/task, all the available computational resources is available whenever needed to the workload. Very little resources are needed for scheduling because there is nothing to schedule, well 1 task, which is not much.

This is taken from a comment on the HBR website, but it makes sense to me. My Yammer Air desktop app seems to drain very little juice from my iMac, but when I’m working in Excel or Adobe Illustrator or heaven forbid iMovie, there is every danger of my computer freezing up, slowing down or crashing altogether. And I have a very nice computer. When I need to do a task I know will require a lot of power or memory or jigowatts, I turn everything else off! Sometimes I do a restart first and clean off my desktop. DUH!

Now enter Maren’s brain, also a very nice computer. There are tasks which can run concurrently pretty much all the time, they are as ingrained in my thought processes as breathing (okay that’s hyperbole but you get me). But there are others for which I must make sure not to run other programs or specific other programs. For example, I can design something and facebook at the same time. But I cannot write copy for a speech and watch TV at the same time. It’s just the way it goes. I can moderate a #tchat while a TV show is on, but I cannot get on facebook. And if I need to write a white paper, I sit down and collect the information I need from the internet or magazines and then shut off the internet while I write and play classical music. My kids can come in, no problem and talk to me. I can get up and do a load of laundry and come right back to writing. I can even write heady material while cooking dinner.

What was I saying? Oh yeah. I can totally multitask.

My real point is this, the statements I am seeing in the media and propogated by my friends are not wrong, simply incomplete:

You can’t multitask…all the time.

Multitasking is ineffective…when used for the wrong tasks.

You are permanently damaging your brain…if you never give it a rest.

Personal relationships will suffer if you multitask….provided you are a weiner and never give your spouse/kids/GF/BF/friends the time of day.

12 thoughts on “I can SO Multitask!

  1. Maren, as you know, I completely agree. There are times for focus and times for multitasking. And if you can’t multitask, I generally don’t have much use for you. Similarly, I want people I work with to focus when necessary too.

    I think both your brain and your autonomic nervous system are sublime. I’m glad you remember to breath, and I like the way you multitask.

    Cheers, CF

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  3. Hmm now you see, you are right because you differentiate between tasks that the brain is able to do with little cognitive flexing, and those that require focus. But you are wrong that the brain is like a computer! A computer has far more ‘spot’ processing power than the brain – thats why when attempting to ‘multitask’ two important tasks, we reduce the effectiveness significantly.

    A great book called “Your Brain at Work” by David Rock explains it beautifully and backs it all up with quality research, including that done while people are multi taskling!

    Oh and im not a weiner ;) Just in case!

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