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Multitasking: How We Do It

Multitasking graphic

Our attention is under siege. From all fronts, we are assaulted with information and stimulus, and focus is an ever-dwindling commodity.  

As students of the media we're vulnerable to digital distractions, by virtue of being "plugged in" 24/7. What is the winning strategy when we must act as gatekeepers for our own minds? How do we manage our attention when it comes time to actually get things done?  

A recently published study from Stanford University, as reported by the BBC, sheds some light on the myth of multitasking.  

Participants were sorted into two categories: high multitaskers and low multitaskers. High multitaskers were those who self identified as being able to multitask well, while low multitaskers denied having the skill to split their attention.  

The results were surprising.  

The experiment tested participants' ability to ignore irrelevant information, organize their working memory, and switch between tasks. In each category, low multitaskers roundly outdid their high multitasking counterparts.  

It's unknown if correlation equals causation in this case, and further research is planned.  

The question raises a question, though: does frequent multitasking erode our ability to focus when it matters most?  

Three Electronic Media students spoke out on their multitasking habits.  

In the discussion of attention management, the question of where is just as important as the question of how. The environment we choose for our studying is an important factor in how well we can focus.  

Simón Sotelo, an E-Media junior, finds it easiest to focus in the library. "To work and play in the same area can be a big problem. When my mind is trying its best to avoid work, which is fairly often, I go to the library. While it's not impossible to waste time there, the fact that it's a long walk motivates me to make the most of my trip."  

Others seek sanctuary in their bedrooms, like E-Media senior Brendan Jeffrey. When describing his study environment, Brendan says "Generally I have a television on, and I'm online. Only when I need to read or do something that requires my full attention do I turn things off."  

The distractions available to E-Media students seem endless. The most ubiquitous are television, instant messaging, and social networks such as Facebook.  

Jaramy Carmody, an E-Media senior, admits to attempting to use movies and television as background noise for getting things done. "It's a game I play where I tell myself I can do this while staying on task. I do find that, many times, this is a losing battle."  

On the new media front, instant messaging and Facebook can be double edged swords.  

Brendan generally keeps his instant messaging program open most of the time, and says that when it starts interfering with his studying, he turns it off.  

Facebook is also ever-present, but can be turned into an academic tool. Simón says that he uses it as a way to contact other classmates about problematic assignments.  

The common denominator of all media distractions seems to be music, but often it's used to aid focus. All three E-Media students interviewed for this story play music at low levels while working.  

Certain types of music seem to be more conducive to productivity, however. "I can do homework while listening to music, though for the most part it needs to be some kind of instrumental jazz, lounge, world, or classical," Jaramy says. Lyrics seem to distract from the task at hand.  

Even though all three respondents admitted to multitasking in some form, each took a different attitude toward the practice.  

Simón looks at multitasking as a compromise between quality and time. He says that if a task can be completed well in 20 minutes with complete focus, or completed in an hour while multitasking, the choice should be clear. "Why would I take an hour to do it but have a 'good time' while doing so? Won't I have a better time if I have 40 minutes to dedicate completely to doing whatever I want?"  

Brendan questions the definition of multitasking, saying that his habits don't fall into that category. He says that even though he can't fully focus on more than one thing at a time, his ability to switch between them can lead to greater overall focus. "I have found that when I'm concentrating, it's very hard for something to break that concentration," he says.  

Falling somewhere in between, Jaramy is hesitant to completely defend or attack the notion of multitasking. He likens it to the spinning plate acts common in circuses or late night variety shows.

For him, it's a question of how different stimuli engage our senses and abilities. He can listen to music while writing a paper, because the two activities engage different parts of his brain. Even momentary distractions are harmless to his attention in the long run.  

But, the line is clear.  

"You cannot possibly type your research paper while texting or sending and instant message because we simply do not have enough hands to do that," Jaramy says.  

He goes on to say "It's bold of some people out there to say that they can always multitask any two or more things no matter the combination, and still come out with a finished product that is just as good."  

Only one of the E-Media students interviewed, Simón, gave an indication that he changed his habits after reflecting on his multitasking tendencies.  

Simón prefers a sense of order in his workflow, keeping his desk and room clean in order to eradicate distractions. He also keeps his computer minimal, preferring to manage his attention with the Spaces function in Mac OS X, which segregates his distractions into multiple desktops.  

"Sure, Facebook and IM are still there, but I have to make a conscious choice to go look at it; there's no blinking window begging for my attention," he says.  

The theme seems to be that it's important to ask hard questions about our ability to multitask. Knowing our relationship with the stimuli and information in our lives gives us a fighting chance to create the necessary filters for getting things done.  

In our future as media professionals, we're more than likely going to be faced with hectic environments that place many demands on our attention. Developing abilities for self analysis and time management will be key to our success in the professional world.  

These skills can be formed now, as students, if we can focus on attaining them.  


Written by Kole Ross, posted April 2010