The Multitasking Myth

multitasking

It’s often said that multitasking is not good in terms of performance or results. We should focus on one thing at a time if we are to be efficient and get more things done. We shouldn’t try to take on too many things at once, or we won’t finish anything. Or if we do finish a few things, they may not be done as well as if we had just focused on one thing at a time. We essentially aren’t very good at multitasking.

Well, research indicates that may be true. And I do agree with that philosophy, to a certain extent, specifically in the workplace. If we have multiple projects or tasks on our plate, we should tackle them one at a time and do each to the best of our ability before moving on to the next. But we actually aren’t necessarily “bad” at multitasking. And this has to do specifically with something called covert attention.

Covert Attention

We have the unique ability to split our focus into different places in space. We can physically focus our heads and eyes on an object in our direct visual field, but also pay attention to what’s going on in our periphery. And on top of those two actions, we could be thinking about something completely different.

A perfect (yet scary) example of this is when we are driving. Our focus (hopefully) is on the road and/or the car in front of us. But without moving our head or our eyes, we can be attentive to the person in the passenger seat, or the radio, or our phones dinging on the console. We could be paying attention to a conversation we are having while driving. Or we could be splitting our attention into 3 parts – the road, the conversation, and our thoughts about the conversation. We could be driving, talking to someone and thinking about what we are going to have for dinner. A little crazy but pretty remarkable. 

So covert attention is an example of how we actually do well at multitasking, to a certain extent, under certain circumstances. If we weren’t, there may be a significantly higher number of automobile accidents. Unfortunately in today’s day and age, not many people are solely focusing on the road.

We shouldn’t be afraid of multitasking, but we should certainly be mindful of our abilities and the situation. Keep the amount of tasks or places of attention to 2 or 3 max. Also, keep singular focus (called overt attention) on the task at hand if it is an important project for work or at home. 

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