Multitasking has its benefits

Peter Kammerer says the constant demand for our attention in this age of information overload may in fact help some to train their focus

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 4:06pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 1:46am

Call it multitasking, task-switching or whatever you want, my kids do it constantly. My younger son, going on 20, is especially good at it: the other night, he won three auctions on eBay for me while chatting to his girlfriend on his mobile phone, keeping track of text messages, listening to hip-hop and playing a strategy video game on his computer.

I was impressed, even though when he was at high school I was always bleating to him to turn that darn music off and stop texting so that he could concentrate on homework. Doing multiple things at once is really not that bad, I thought.

Closer observation the following day solidified my positive impression. I asked what the weather forecast was and got an instant response; he knew about the breaking news; an e-mail was answered within a minute; an air ticket was purchased without a problem online on my behalf, with a game called League of Legends in progress in another window of the computer screen. Mobile apps make much of this possible, but being able to turn quickly from one to the other takes a deft hand and practice.

All people of my sons' generation do this, of course. Their phones and tablets are constantly blipping and bleeping, alive with chat group and Facebook updates, text messages and whatever else is considered essential. This is commonly referred to as multitasking, but it is actually rapid task-switching. Many parents, and a majority of studies, perceive it negatively.

I do the same to a lesser degree at work with regular checks of e-mail while researching stories. This, research says, is bad for productivity. Yet only by responding to each e-mail ping will I know what is happening around the newsroom and office. I have found, though, that I write best and meet deadlines better when I turn e-mail off - which I do regularly when writing stories and columns such as this one.

Multitasking is attributed by many educationists to lower achievement levels. Their beliefs are backed by studies indicating that by not giving full attention to the task at hand, we are not doing the best job possible. People can sometimes successfully change focus, but individual tasks suffer if they do it all the time. Multitasking is often necessary for managers and people who work in hectic places like restaurant kitchens and bars, but the wisdom seems to be that the best results come from focusing on a single task.

That may well have been what my son was doing amid all the digital noise when he won those auctions. Just as those who live on aircraft flight paths or busy roads learn to live with the roar of traffic, people who have grown up in the era of the hand-held device may learn to categorise tasks according to importance.

But there may be another explanation, as research by Kelvin Lui and Alan Wong of the Chinese University of Hong Kong seems to show. Their study indicated that people who use different types of media simultaneously appear to be better than others at merging information from senses like sight and sound. I tend to agree - and further the argument by suggesting that some people are better suited than others to multitasking.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post