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144One view on Multitasking

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  • beier.john@epamail.epa.gov
    Aug 1, 2008
      I firmly believe that true multitasking is an illusion. From what I
      have read about it from researchers to my own direct experience, I find
      that generally trying to do two mental things exactly at the same
      instant is not neurophysiologically possible. I think that what people
      call multitasking is actually their mind instantly shifting from one
      mental focus to another in fractions of a second. This phenomena
      reminds me of the old days when people only worked on mainframe
      computers. A hundred people would sit down to terminals connected to a
      mainframe and each person swore that they were the only one using the
      machine since every action they performed appeared to be as if they
      alone had control of the computer. This illusion occurred because the
      computer could jump from one user to another a millionth of a second -
      giving the impression to the user that he alone controlled the computer.
      Thus, the illusion of a multitasking computer was actually a super fast
      computer that did only one thing (service each user) very, very fast -
      then moved on the next user and so on. I believe our brain performs
      this same function (going from one thing to another) at such a fast
      speed that it gives us the illusion that it is multitasking.

      Since I have been doing mindfulness mediation, I have been paying more
      attention to my thoughts throughout the day. Meditation has helped me
      look closer at the mental process that occur in my consciousness as I go
      through the day. In the past I never paid much attention to my own
      thinking process - only to the content of the thinking. A good example
      for me was the discovery that listening to the radio while driving
      reduces my attention of the driving. Before I began meditation, I
      would have said that listening to the radio had no effect on my driving.
      But it did. I found that my focus was more narrowed while listening to
      the radio and I did not perceive some of the subtle cues that we use
      while driving. I found that listening to someone speak had more of an
      impact than just listening to music.

      Recent research has demonstrated that the driving ability of someone
      speaking on a cell phone is comparable to someone with an illegal level
      of alcohol in their blood. This is a shocking finding yet little press
      was given to this research. Cell phones pose a greater distraction than
      listening to the radio because your brain is not only listening but
      thinking about what it is going to say when you are about to say
      something. In other words, having a conversation with someone takes a
      lot more mental focusing and processing (which can distract one from
      driving) than passively listening to the radio.

      The point I am trying to make is that everyone can "multitask" but the
      quality of each task you work on suffers and is not as good as if you
      focused on one task at a time. Again the scientific research bears this
      out. Multitasking may make you feel more productive and produce more
      "product" but the quality that you would attain from focused attention
      ain't there - again another illusion. Of course washing the dishes,
      eating a snack, and watching the news on TV can all be done without much
      trouble. Yet how well do you taste the food while doing these things?
      How much do you really hear of the news? And how carefully are you
      washing the dishes? Sure we can all do multitasking - but what's the
      price? Do you want your air traffic controller for your plane also
      listening to the his Ipod, and talking to his collague about the latest
      football plays while he is directing your plane through the very crowded
      skies at National Airport? I wouldn't !!

      John
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