Multi-Tasking/Task Switching

Need to understand multi-tasking or task switching. What is often called multi-tasking is more rapid task switching. Technology and social change are fuelling the rise of multi-tasking, eg handling a work query while in the supermarket queue. All this means that less time is wasted. On the other hand, we can feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things we can do at any one time
- US Bureau of Labour Statistics (Tim Harford, 2015) states that 50% of high school students when doing their home work are also listening to music, watching TV or otherwise multi-tasking
- research have shown that we should focus on one thing at a time. For example, consider the performance of drivers who chat on the mobile phone compared with drivers who are drunk. Chatting drivers are not as aggressive as risk-taking as drunk drivers but they are unsafe in other ways, ie they took much longer to respond to events outside the car and failed to notice a lot of visual cues around them. In other words, using a mobile phone is as dangerous as driving while drunk. The problem with talking while driving is our limited mental bandwidth
- multi-tasking does not improve with usage, ie people who systematically overrate their ability to multi-task, display poor impulse control and multitasking ability.
- there is a cognitive cost to multi-tasking, ie

"...Students struggled to answer questions about the predictions they made in the multitasking environment. They have successfully juggled both cars in the moment - but they haven't learnt anything that they could apply in a different context...... suggest that the feeling of understanding may be an allusion and that, later, we find ourselves unable to remember much, or to apply our knowledge flexibly. so, multitasking can make us forgetful - one way in which multi-taskers are a little like drunks..."

Tim Hartford, 2015

- multi-tasking can improve the performance of scientists. Research has shown that top scientists were constantly changing the focus of their research, eg in reviewing the first 100 papers of some famous scientists it was found

"...the most productive cover 5 different research areas and move from one of their topics to another an average of 43 times. They would publish, and change the subject, publish again, and change the subject again...... subjects must have overlapped. The secret to a long and highly productive scientific career? Its multitasking..."

Tim Hartford, 2015

- during multi-tasking at least 1 task needs to be familiar that it is done without thinking
- some research (Tim Hartford, 2015) has shown that people have the bedroom recollection of uncompleted tasks, ie when leaving things unfinished, you can't quite let go of them mentally (call the Zeigarnik effect). This may explain the connection between facing multiple responsibilities and indulging in rapid task switching, ie

"...We flit from task to task because we cannot forget about all of the things that we haven't yet finished.......because we're trying to get the nagging voice is in our head to shut up..."

Tim Hartford, 2015

- focus and multi-tasking appear to be in conflict. They overlap if you regard multi-tasking as switching tasks rapidly, ie changing focus. Tasks now blend into each other instantaneously
- linked with multitasking is task switching, getting distracted and managing multiple projects. These are connected, eg the practice of having multiple projects invites habits of rapid task switching. Task switching slows the subjects down and scrambles your thinking. Your performance falls in areas of reading comprehension, problem solving, etc. On the other hand, task switching helps with creativity, ie divergent thinking improves,

"...Involuntary multitasking produces a greater volume and variety of answers, and their answers are more original too..."

Tim Hartford, 2015

This is contrary to the thought that great work can only be achieved through superhuman focus, thinking long and hard.

It is our ability to change focus that gets creative juices flowing
- "low latent inhibition" (this involves filtering out irrelevant stimuli). This is a subconscious filter that allows us to

"...walk through the world without being overwhelmed by all the different stimuli it hurls at us..."

Tim Hartford, 2015

Yet people whose filters are a little more porous or prone to being distracted have a big creative edge

"...the act of switching back and forth can grease the wheels of thought..."

John Kounios as quoted by Tim Hartford, 2015

Some extra creative mechanisms linked with multitasking are
- new tasks can help us to forget bad ideas, ie doing something new induces "fixation forgetting" (leaving us free to find another answer)
- "opportunistic simulation", ie a new task prompts us to think of a solution to an old one

- one way to ensure that things are getting done is by writing down every single commitment with the next thing that needs to be done. Regularly review your list of next actions.
Six ways to master multi-tasking (be mindful, write it down, tame your smart phone, focus on short sprints, procrastinate to win & cross-fertilise)
i) be mindful
- need to be able to identify when multitasking or focusing is most appropriate
- make two separate lists, eg one for activities is best done with Internet and another for activities is best done off-line. Connecting and disconnecting from the Internet should be deliberate acts

ii) write it down
- document your thoughts into specific actions and review them regularly
- need to feel relaxed about what you are doing and what you have decided not to do right now

iii) tame your smart phone
- the smart phone is a great servant and a harsh master
- disable needless notifications
- arrange a filing system so that your e-mails are classified and filed away where appropriate

iv) focus on short sprints
- focus for 25 minutes and rest for 5 minutes
- work in 2 hour sessions
- prioritise, eg deal with urgent matters first

v) procrastinate to win
- if you have several interesting projects on the go simultaneously, regularly switch from one to the other; such task switching can unlock new ideas

vi) cross-fertilise

"...creative ideas come to people who are interdisciplinary, working across different organisational units or across many projects...... good ideas often come when your mind makes the unexpected connections between different fields..."

Keith Sawyer as quoted by Tim Hartford, 2015


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