Apr 25, 2011

Multitasking

Speaking of multitasking, Kevin Drum has a question:
After writing a couple of posts about multitasking, I'm curious about something: how good are you at multitasking? Which is to say, how good do you think you are at multitasking? And what kinds of things to you multitask at?

...But I can't multitask at all. For example, I can't listen to music and write at the same time. It's too distracting. I don't comment on TV news much because I don't watch TV news. Partly that's because TV news rots your brain, but mostly it's because I can't write while the TV is on in the background. Too distracting. And when I write long form pieces for the magazine, I work on them almost exclusively on weekends. I just can't task switch effectively between blogging and article writing during the day.

Of course, this is only true for cognitive tasks. Like anyone, I can work out and watch TV at the same time, or carry on a conversation while I'm cooking dinner. That's multitasking, I guess, but it's not really cognitive multitasking.
I find it hard to know what counts as multitasking. On first blush, I thought I must be fairly bad at it. I often run, walk, or wash my clothes while listening to a recorded book, but as Kevin says, that doesn't really count. I can't read and talk at the same time, and I find TV of any kind to be really distracting.  Any sort of handheld device renders me helpless; I try to never take calls if I'm driving.

There is one exception: I almost always have music of some kind going in the background, whether I'm writing, reading, or cooking.  I remember when I was taking my multivariable calculus tests sophomore year in college—beastly take-home papers that were for me about the most difficult single things I did in college—I would sit in my room all night with the hardest Opeth albums (a kind of progressive death metal) blasting full volume.  To me that says the music was occupying a part of my brain that would otherwise have distracted me, because I don't think I ever concentrated that hard on anything before or since.

What I am very good at (or bad, depending on your perspective) is ignoring things when I'm reading.  During my recent vacation, I was reading A Feast For Crows on my Kindle while some friends were playing a card game about 10 feet away.  They wanted to ask me a question, and it took several minutes of progressively more ridiculous shouting to get me to look up.  Apparently it was quite hilarious. So I'd say I'm fairly bad at multitasking, but reasonably good at the opposite, focusing on one thing in a distracting environment.

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