January 2018 - Symposium Learning

January 15, 2018

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Multi-tasking: Myth or Reality

Can multi-tasking decrease our performance?

We have 5 senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.
Those senses collect information from the external world and translate those into input and signals which allow us to generate thoughts, decision and actions.
As human beings, we are complex and legendary – and yes, there are plenty of things that we can do “at the same time”.
Consider walking: we move our legs into steps, we follow the road, we read directions, we hear noise and traffic: we can listen to music or have a conversation.
Consider eating: we can chew, smell and taste the food. We can walk while we eat. Some of us can drive while eating. We can even talk … (even thought my mother would say it was unpolite). Many of us watch TV while eating: we can therefore listen and watch two things “at the same time” – the food and the TV program.
It seems therefore that MULTI-TASKING is a reality: we are capable do involve our senses and bring knowledge to our mind on different tasks, simultaneously.

Health advisors, however, recognise that “mindless eating” is a cause for unhealthy overweight – we stimulate our brain with distracting information while we expect our stomach to deliver the message in time and inform our mind that it is satisfied – a brain who attention is taken by other sense.
The same considerations are applied to multi-tasking while driving: most countries today apply a heavy penalty system if you are caught driving and texting. The rational is that while we can perform more than one task simultaneously, we cannot give our ATTENTION to more than one thing at the same time.
We share our attention: we can shift it quickly between our fork and the TV screen, making sure that we eat the right food and while not missing a goal. We can change gear in our car, pick at the light and press that button that will open an email. But we cannot give attention do all 3 actions AT THE SAME TIME.
Our own language in fact informs us of this distinction: we can see or watch, hear or listen. The difference is in the attention.

Multi-tasking & Performance
It seems therefore valid that while we can “do” more than one thing at the same time – like listening to music while writing, it is not possible to give attention to the content of an email while talking on the phone.
We should therefore re-define “multi-tasking” when applied to a business environment.
Multi-tasking can be intended as: our ability to manage more than one project running at the same time by allocating the sufficient ATTENTION to all aspect of the projects sequentially and appropriately.
A working day may include maintenance of relations with colleague, of correspondence with clients, completion of assigned reports, review, production etc.
The number of projects which will be running successfully at the “same time” will very much depend on the individual ability to “switch” attention.
Some of us can regain the train of thoughts held in a specific conversation quite quickly – some of us have learned to use techniques like note taking to ensure that we have a repository of memory.
For some to “move” focus between two tasks comes more difficult – and the distraction, especially in certain jobs, can only be equated to a costly interruption.
It is not our ability to do more than one thing at the same time (eat and watch TV) that affects our performance: it is our ability to move our ATTENTION between tasks that will determine if we are successfully “multi-tasking”.