Do Not Attempt This at Work: Multi-tasking?

Many of us come to work, immediately plug in the podcast we’ve been listening to for the last few days, head straight toward the radio, or insert the earbuds to indicate the universal “I can’t hear you, and I’m busy being productive” sign.  We’ve all done it.  Hell, sometimes I’m just a little bit proud of how many different things I can get done when I’m in the lab working…but isn’t that just a tiny bit scary?  Most of society prides themselves on the fact that they can perform multiple actions simultaneously, or multi-task.  Western society is built on this premise, and we thrive at the thought of getting more done than the person next to us.  It’s almost instinctual, in my opinion.  But am I doing myself any favors by getting lost in a smorgasbord of tasks and actions while never focusing or being curious or intent on just one thing?  Could distractions be making me less efficient, less effective?  Are music and podcasts blessings to save us from the (sometimes) monotonous portions of our duties, or are they crutches to automatically rely on when silence feels uncomfortable, and actually concentrating seems too hard?

One of our silent collaborators and I were talking about this the other day, especially after hearing our superiors mention important things such as “productivity”, “efficiency” and the backlog in various staff meetings.  We didn’t really vocalize it, but I think we both came away with a common question in our heads: “Is it my responsibility to attempt to increase my productivity and efficiency?  Isn’t my agency supposed to enable me to be more efficient by demonstrating the same principles in their tasks and responsibilities?  How do I do this and still maintain a certain amount of autonomy and more importantly, happiness…without feeling as if there’s a whip cracking above my head somewhere?”

This website is devoted, in large part, to the ideas of mindfulness.  Is our workplace directing us to strive for excellence while simultaneously asking us to pile on more during the hours we are on duty?  Does multitasking fly in the face of mindfulness, or can mindfulness enhance your ability to multitask?  Can you feel comfortable and happy doing just one thing, and devoting a certain amount of time to that one thing, for say, 30 minutes?  I’d love to know what you think, because I definitely don’t have the answers myself.  I do know, however, that I think mindfulness can make me feel freer rather than bound up; more peaceful than restless; more present than distracted.  Can those feelings really carry over to labeling tubes and cross-checking dates for technical review?

Tina Ng dares to think that mindfulness can free you from the overload of distractions and the erosion of your sense of the present.  She believes mindfulness achieves more than multitasking, and in turn, multitasking can be made more productive with mindfulness Read her article here to learn more about her views, and let us know what you think.

Another author who has ended up genuinely questioning multitasking is Judy Lynn, writing for Multiple Sclerosis News Today.  As a habitual multitasker, Judy studied how the mind jumps from one thing to another so rapidly, especially after receiving her MS diagnosis and realizing she may lose that capacity:

“One research article on the American Psychology Association website uses the term “switch costs.”  Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multi-tasking may seem efficient on the surface, but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. … even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time. I don’t know about you, but I cannot afford to lose that much productive time.”

Read more here on Miss Judy’s journey exploring the realm of focus and attention, and how she intends to slow down and be more productive.  More on mindfulness and multitasking a little later…until then, keep smiling!

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