The “Right” Way to Multitask?

I was in the Verizon store picking up an iPhone for my son, when I saw that one of its touted features was improved multitasking. Knowing what research says about how multitasking slows you down and interferes with the quality and accuracy of what you’re doing, I was intrigued.  But thinking more about this, I realize there are two issues here.

One the one hand, it’s good to have a DEVICE that can multitask. The term multitasking actually came from the realm of computers. Computers that are programmed properly and have a large enough capacity can do more than one thing at a time. On the other hand, people can’t multitask effectively because their brains don’t work that way. They can only pay attention to one thing at a time because their “working memory” is of very limited size.

The first ad I saw about the iPhone showed “multitasking” as a good thing. Someone was talking on the phone to make arrangements to meet his friend at the movies.  Without dropping the call, he was able to check out the movie times in his area so they could make a decision on the spot. Although his phone was multitasking, the person was actually single-tasking — his focus was on making a decision with his friend on what they would see and when they would see it.

If, instead of searching for a movie to see together, the same person had been surfing the web for sports scores while his friend was talking about her day, that would indeed be multitasking — the bad kind. He can’t focus on two distinct things at once. She probably sensed he was not really there for her, or later, she discovered that he didn’t remember a word she said.

Check out the iPhone’s descriptions of their so-called “Right Ways to Multitask.” Here’s an example:

“Listen to audio in the background
Now you can listen to audio from compatible third-party appswhile checking email, surfing the web, playing games, and performing other tasks. So when you want to follow a ball game or listen to music from Pandora, your productivity never skips a beat.”

Your productivity never skips a beat? — in your dreams!

It all boils down to this:

multitasking for machines = good

multitasking for people = not so much!



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