Multi-Tasking and Time Management: Are We Really Attention-Switching?

 

Short of sleeping while ironing, I am constantly doing more than one thing at a time. After giving a speech to a local career group, a man from the audience came up to me and said that “there is no such thing as multi-tasking.”   This is an interesting thing to debate.  This topic became popular a few years ago when scientists were doing a lot of studies on multi-tasking. 

Paul M. Jones claims that the many things we call multi-tasking are actually attention-switching.  According to Jones, “You cannot perform two or more non-trivial tasks at the same time; at best, you pay attention to one and mostly ignore the other, then you switch your attention to the other and dismiss the first one temporarily, and then you switch your attention back to the first again. This is far less effective than completing the first task, then moving on to the second task, because of the time and mental effort it takes to switch between tasks.” 

Some of what people are referring to when they say science has proven that multi-tasking is a myth is due to the results of several studies.  One of those studies was completed by Neuroscientist, Daniel Weissman,  who studied subjects’ brains as they performed different tasks.  For more information on these brain studies, check out NPR’S report by clicking here

I’ve read some of the literature.  Perhaps the wording multi-tasking is the problem. I’m happy to use the term attention-switching. However, for me, if I waited until I completed one thing to start something else, I would be missing a lot of opportunities to fill in some gaps.  I often have several programs open on my computer.  As I am working in one program, waiting for the page to refresh or for something to calculate on screen, I can switch to another program and be working on something else.  If I simply sat and waited for my computer to finish thinking, I’d be doing a lot of staring at my computer’s hourglass.  Saying that multi-tasking is a myth and calling this act attention-switching is fine.  However, I do not agree, at least for me, that tasks must be completed in entirety before moving onto something else. 

In a job where I “dialed for dollars”, I would type my sales call notes as I spoke to my customers over the phone.  This helped me to not forget the most important parts of the conversation.  It also allowed me to have at least an hour more phone productivity time as compared to other employees that waited until they got off the phone to write their notes. 

Whether you want to refer to doing more than one thing at a time as multi-tasking or attention-switching, there is a lot of wasted time out there that I believe more people should be looking for in order to become more efficient.  If you have time management issues, I would suggest looking for things that you can do simultaneously as in my example of the call notes.  Some things can be combined to make your day more productive.

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