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Unmasking multitasking

June 30, 2008 |  3:48 pm

Tired of walking down the street and chewing gum at the same time? Looking for new things to do with your hands when tomorrow's handheld cell phone ban kicks in?

This Christine Rosen essay in The New Atlantis may give you a new reason to fight the power. Bearing the giveaway title "The Myth of Multitasking," the piece focuses with singleminded concentration on the possibility that when you're doing lots of wonderful things at once, you're doing all of them poorly:

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, one sensed a kind of exuberance about the possibilities of multitasking. Advertisements for new electronic gadgets—particularly the first generation of handheld digital devices—celebrated the notion of using technology to accomplish several things at once. The word multitasking began appearing in the “skills” sections of résumés, as office workers restyled themselves as high-tech, high-performing team players...

But more recently, challenges to the ethos of multitasking have begun to emerge. Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, for example, and several states have now made that particular form of multitasking illegal. In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, “Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” The psychologist who led the study called this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity. One of the Harvard Business Review’s “Breakthrough Ideas” for 2007 was Linda Stone’s notion of “continuous partial attention,” which might be understood as a subspecies of multitasking...

Multitasking might also be taking a toll on the economy. One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers; they found that workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task. Discussing multitasking with the New York Times in 2007, Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking—information overload—costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.

Read the whole article.

There's some intuitive sense in the argument against the kind of permanent distraction level built into the multitasking culture. But there's a bigger context to the fad: the decline of specialization, and the rise of an amateur, Renaissance-person approach to work.

This shift may be the kind of thing you see more clearly in the field of journalism — where a thousand Mayhill Fowlers bloom and specialized work is being either outsourced or phased out entirely — than you see in, say, neurosurgery. I know I was appalled, upon my arrival at this very newspaper, to discover how rigid the practice of 19th-century division of labor was here. I just hadn't realized there were still places running on industrial-era production models. That has been changing quickly (if 15 years too late) even during my brief tenure, and I suspect you'll see the same thing in many jobs. This means you have more opportunities to learn new skills, to work in fields outside your own and, as Steve Martin advised, to criticize things you don't know about; but it also means you no longer have the leisure to focus on a single task for a great length of time.

So the ability to handle multiple activities, to manage rapid shifts in attention, to organize many different elements that used to be done by different people — to multitask, in other words — will carry more value. A great chunk of specialized skill and artisanship is being lost in the process, but that's not the result of advertising or media exuberance. It's a fundamental change in the way work gets distributed. Most people aren't very good at multitasking, but that's probably because most people weren't very good at single-tasking.

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