Monday 25 August 2014

"Good at multi-tasking" = "Unable to concentrate"

The truth-inverting concept of 'multi-tasking' proves to be a major nuisance in modern life; in encouraging what is already a big problem of short attention span, distractability, not to focus, inability to attend, failing to be here-and-now and living in real-time.

Multi-tasking might have a reality in terms of someone who is simultaneously able to perform multiple skilled processes in parallel.

In this sense, Glenn Gould the great pianist was described as able to do more than one skilled task at the same time, each at a very high level; and this goes along with this unsurpassed ability to play the different voices in a fugue (or other polyphonic, contrapuntal form of music) as if each had independent existence.

Yet when Gould was aiming to attain the very highest level of skill - as when performing a piece for a concert or recording - he was totally wrapped-up in it; such that he seemed to be entranced and oblivious. No multitasking there!

For lesser mortals there is much greater need for unitary concentration, for focus, in performing a difficult task. And if this is lacking - then the task is being done sub-optimally.

In practice, when people claim they are multi-tasking they are simply allowing themselves to be distracted - and accepting the necessarily lower level of performance which results.

(Thus social networking while attending a lecture, or listening to loud music on headphones while studying for a test, or browsing the internet while watching TV - and so on.)

And when women claim (as they so often do!) to be better-at-multi-tasking; insofar as this claim has any meaning at all, it merely means that women are (by and large, and leaving aside pathology) worse-at-concentrating - for which there is a great deal of anecdotal as well as statistical evidence.

Highest performance entails greatest and most sustained focus: the ability to concentrate is an ability, not a deficit.

Further reflections @:


JP said...

A classic case is people who say they are "multi-tasking" when they're watching TV or working their phone while they do something else - when really they're being distracted from the "something else" by the TV or the phone (or both!).

John K. said...

As I am currently looking at my Facebook profile, I cannot remember the article; yet I recall a study that looking into the average efficiency of humans' completely multiple tasks. The baseline was one task where, by definition, the average person could accomplish the task at 100% efficiency. The study examined relative efficiency over two or more tasks. As I remember, and all kidding aside, the average human essentially falls apart trying to concentrate on doing somewhere between two to three tasks. In other words, we are, on average, at 100% efficiency when we are focused and typically drop to about 0% efficiency just by adding one or two tasks. This is why we tend to prioritize taks when faced with two or more tasks vs. 'multi-task'. In short, your comment made me smile because it has been well known some time ago that there really is no such thing as efficient human multi-tasking, and people who claim to be, and as you point out, are stating something that only someone who has seen the Easter Bunny or a happy and nice cultural Marxist could possibly state. That is, it is an oxymoronic comment in and of itself.