// what do you think?


Vilifying Multitasking and Fear Mongering is Counterproductive

As I write this post I’m listening to my headphones, my foot tapping along to the music. This morning while I was driving in to work I was listening to the audio of James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Wasn’t my brain doing more than one thing at a time? That doesn’t even begin to take into account all of the other things my brain was working on at those moments.

Is that not multitasking?

I learned this great trick from a teacher of mine; when you can’t think of something (you know when you’re in a conversation and you forget the name of a book or something) say “I’ll think of it,” instead of “I can’t remember it,” and then move on and you’ll be surprised how often you’ll remember it. You’re telling your brain to keep looking for it instead of admitting defeat and giving up. This works because your brain is a problem solving machine. It is always working on things that are at different levels of consciousness.

Is this not multitasking?

Today Andrew McAfee wrote a post again raising the warning flag that multitasking is bad. The impetus for this post was the disturbing fact that Nick Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which is just a really long version of his article in The Atlantic Is Google Making us Stupid, is being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Save yourself the time and just read the article.

I’ve already written my response to Nick’s book in The Evolution of Society, Madness and Social Media, so I won’t go into all of that again but in general I am really tired of all the vilifying of multitasking.

What About Your Moleskine? Hypocrite.

If you go back and read McAfee’s post you will hear him talk about the importance of picking up a pen and paper occasionally and unplugging and taking time to reflect. Which is something I talk about frequently. As I write this (while listening to my music) I have my Moleskine and pens sitting next to me. I do not disagree with Andrew at all that we need to unplug and think.

I do not believe that always multitasking is a good thing either. Have I confused you yet?

There is a place for multitasking and a place for pen and paper.

I believe that we are capable of multitasking and we should explore this capability in ourselves. We should nurture it and expand it. I believe that the ability to multitask will become a mandatory skill set for knowledge workers and possibly for our being a productive member of society. But I do not believe that we should always be multitasking. I do believe that we should find times to unplug each day. I believe that some things should be done without multitasking.

But I also believe that by vilifying multitasking we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The more posts I read about the evils of multitasking the more it sounds like fear mongering by those who are fearful for their place in societies future.

The very fabric of our society and culture is rapidly changing and that has effects on our psychological and mental development and capabilities. I don’t believe that any of it is necessarily bad or good, it just is. And that by fighting it or by just passively accepting it - or worse, not even realizing its happening - you are doing yourself the biggest disservice.

You need to be an active participant in your own evolution.

And for the anonymous commenters who are going to try and say that my post would be filled with less grammatical errors  if I wasn’t multitasking when I wrote this. I promise that it wouldn’t. I’ve run my own experiments and even been tested by psychologists and for me listening to music actually helps. Yes, I work better with certain types of multitasking.

And why are commenters on grammar always anonymous?

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About Tac

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

  • http://www.jaskeller.wordpress.com Jason Keller

    I think it is great to challenge claims that people make. However I will say that you counterargument does not make any effort to disprove the claims made by Andrew McAfee. You say that multitasking can be good, but did not validate that point; you did not demonstrate to any extent that multitasking is good. Sure you said you are listening to music while writing, but that is one of the most simplistic forms of multitasking. I believe when McAfee speaks about multitasking, it is not a call to arms against. headphones.

    I respect the defense again McAfee and tip my hat to you for challenging that position, but you need to validate your claims in further detail before you declare the opposition “fear mongering”. Your personal bias and ad-hoc experiments to not qualify as credible evidence that these guys are wrong and are “those who are fearful for their place in societies future”.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    Thanks Jason and you’re absolutely right. I linked to a previous post where I took this exact point on but didn’t add much context as to the points I made in that article and also failed to relink to the research being done that shows some people can actually multitask effectively. http://www.psych.utah.edu/lab/appliedcognition/publications/supertaskers.pdf

    I also am operating under the assumption that most people would like to be able to multitask effectively since it’s something we all do anyway.

    Thanks for calling me out and keeping me honest.

  • http://www.jaskeller.wordpress.com Jason Keller

    No worries Tac… I really appreciate how you took my criticism (including my numerous typos).

    But I would say that we are in an American culture that is perpetually busy. I do fear that when people are multitasking, they never add depth to their thought processes as one would be able to do focusing on one thing at a time. I fear that this style of task management could hinder people from ever having a level of cognition necessary for complex rational thought. That is, the more people multitask, the busier the perceive themselves, and the greater threat that people will rely on superficial thinking, thus a greater risk to innovation and new ideas (because people will think they are too busy to focus deeply on ideas/thoughts and not give them proper time to develop because of habitual multitasking).

    This is a macro-level concern, and may not really be an issue in reality, but if people always multitask, this could be a threat.

    This is a conversation that shouldn’t be dichotomized either. I think you points definitely have value, as do the thoughts from the opposition. I think multitasking, and its pros and cons, actually lie somewhere in the middle of the two viewpoints discussed in your article.

  • http://www.newcommbiz.com tacanderson

    First off, I love civil debate. I love that people disagree on these kinds of topics. It’s when people don’t debate and discuss that everyone loses.

    If we broke down where I agree with those that are anti-multitasking and where I agree there would probably be far more agreement than lies at the surface. First off I absolutely agree that people need to take time away from screens and find time to single-task(?). I also believe that some tasks should probably never be done while multitasking.

    But where I have a problem is when people say, multitasking is bad we shouldn’t do it and people are less productive when multitasking. This assumes that all instances of multitasking are the same and that all tasks require the same type of mental focus. This just isn’t true.

    Yes if people are multitasking all the time and that’s all they do, then that’s a problem. But that’s not the case. I believe multitasking can be a useful tool and will become an even more useful tool when people figure out how to use it properly.

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