// what do you think?


Learn to Multitask or Be Left Behind

I personally am sick and tired of  people telling me that multitasking can not be done effectively. I’m especially sick of people saying that this hyper-connected world is making us all ADD. If they knew what they are saying they would be wishing that it really was.

What is Multitasking?

How I Work

How I Work

I would like to start off by addressing what is multitasking. People claim that research proves that our brains can’t do more than one thing. That’s just not true.

Our brains are currently doing hundreds of things. There’s lower level brain functions like breathing, keeping our hearts functioning, regulating body temperature and the like. Yes, glands and hormones do a lot for us but our brain monitors all of this all the time.

Then there’s slightly higher level functions like right now I’m listening to music, noticing that my feet are getting cold and wondering when I’m going to put on socks.  My brain is also aware of what’s happening in my peripheral vision and the noise happening downstairs as my kids play. If one of them made the right (or wrong) noise at no louder volume than they already are my brain would pick up on that and alert me.

Then there’s the primary thing my brain is doing which is typing away on my computer determining what it is that I’m going to say next and helping me hit the right keys on the keyboard and if I mess up my pinky is hitting the backspace key before I’ve actually realized I’ve made a mistake.

But when most people talk about multitasking they are talking about those higher level and primary functions. And assuming for a minute that I at least believe people are not capable of being effective while performing multiple higher level functions (which I don’t) what were really talking about is the ability to jump back and forth between one task and another.

Can people write, stop, check email, respond resume writing, check TweetDeck, read several tweets, post, check a link, read an article write a quick blog post, thumb up a new song  on Pandora and resume writing again and still be effective if they do that multiple times a day? Or should they just write their article. Then check all their email. Then check TweetDeck, say during lunch or something. Then go to a link to read an article. Maybe bookmark that post for an article to be written sometime later. Then repeat that cycle once more before going home?

I personally would get nothing done. I think multitasking can be much more productive, most people just haven’t figured out how to do it very well yet. Even if some people are just better at switching back and forth between tasks it’s something we can be better at. The only reason some people may not be effective multitaskers is because they don’t have much practice at it yet.

The Information Revolution

I feel sorry for “normal” people. No I do not consider myself normal.  :)

The premise that multitasking is a fallacy assumes that everyone learns the same. We don’t. For the majority of people that may be true but there is a subset of the population who’s brains don’t work exactly like everyone else.

For most of my life I’ve been told I have a disability. In junior high I was told I wouldn’t graduate high school. I was a C student but only with lots of work. I did graduate high school and then college and than on to get a Masters degree. It turns out that disability only means I learn differently than everyone else not that I can’t learn.

You see I’m ADD. Not the sleep deprived, hyper distracted, over caffeinated state that popular culture refers to when they all half-jokingly talk about ADD. But the real ADD where I take prescription meth (Ritalin) to focus and I take caffeine to “take the edge off” not wake up.

Now in our always on society I believe it’s everyone else who has the disability.

But for some of you I do believe there’s hope. Like building muscles I think multitasking can be learned. Some types of learning should avoid multitasking, but in many work environments I think it can be a successful mental state. There’s a great article in NY Mag you should read.

Don’t shy away from multitasking lean into it, develop it.

But I do believe there are some people out there that will never learn to multitask. I believe that some very smart people are not capable of it and it’s them that I worry about. My personal view is much like the French philosopher Michel Foucault points towards in Madness and Civilization, each forward jump in progress leaves behind a subset of the population.

In college I worked at a group home with developmentally disabled adults. These are people, beautiful people, who can’t function in our society without assistance. Many that I worked with, in another century before the industrial revolution, would have been perfectly able to function in society. They would have maybe had a year or two of education and then gone to work doing manual labor. But now society has *advanced* to a point where they are no longer allowed to be apart of it.

Many are telling us, and I tend to agree, that we are experiencing our next revolution. I think most people will develop the skills to survive and thrive in a multitasking world. I don’t think the need for multitasking will go away. I also think those people who refuse or are truly unable to adapt to this new state will be left behind. I don’t think they’ll end up in group homes but they will be at a disadvantage to those of that can successfully adapt. And in some cases thrive.

So will you adapt or will you sit around and complain about not being relevant?

Or will you take the time to learn and work your brain? Don’t expect any sympathy from me. But I’m happy to help. If you’d like some help, start here.

I know I’ve upset some of you. I’m sorry. Let me have it. (Still won’t change my opinion).

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About Tac

Social media anthropologist. Communications strategist. Business model junkie. Chief blogger here at New Comm Biz.

  • cflinnds

    Tac — I'm laughing because I was formulating an ADD joke but by the time I read half the post I saw you'd mined that vein before I could.

    Multitasking as a hyped phenomena has been overplayed (IMHO) but I see you're not really talking about doing 5 or 6 things strictly simultaneously (ie: talking to client A on the phone while you type an email to client B) — but more along the lines of being “agile” (if I may choose to classify it that way). While you're checking TwitterDeck, you are entirely focused for that 25 seconds on TwitterDeck. When you're reading an article, you're focused on parsing and digesting and mentally arguing points on that article. Laser focus with a quick change-out.

    Sound right? Agree?

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    My favorite ADD joke is:
    Q: How many ADD kids does it take to change a light bulb?
    A: Wanna go ride a bike?

    I think there are appropriate times to multitask and times we should absolutely focus. On one level we can definitely get better at the “agile” part of multitasking. I think another key area is realize when you can learn to do more than one things at the same time. Texting while driving doesn't make sense but recording voice memo's while driving is totally safe. Sending emails in a meeting you are a pivotal stakeholder in is a waste of everyone's time. Sending emails when you're in a meeting so you can report back to a broader group and you know meeting notes will be sent out after is probably ok. I just also think the amount we can get done while multitasking will increase as we get better and the times we need to focus will get fewer than they are now.

  • cflinnds

    I *have* to remember that joke. Love it.

    Appreciate the added facet of “discretionary” multitasking.

    Interesting thread.

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