Editor's Corner:
Is Multitasking Good for Writers?

by Moira Allen

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Show me a writer who doesn't "multitask," and I'll show you... well, I'm not sure what. But I'm not worried about being held to my half of that sentence! I seriously doubt that, in today's "do 50 things before breakfast" world, you could show me that writer. Let's face it: We all do it. We have no choice. As I've said before, the speed at which we can do things hasn't saved us labor. It's simply caused us to have to perform 10 tasks in the time once required for one.

The problem is not that we multitask. Again, in many cases, we have no choice. The problem is that many of us have been led to believe that multitasking is a good thing because it speeds up our work and increases our productivity. After all, it stands to reason that if you can do two things at the same time, they'll both get done faster than if you did them sequentially, right?

Unfortunately, studies are showing that this isn't true. In fact, it seems that multitasking can actually decrease your productivity -- by as much as 40%! In plainer words, that means that either one will accomplish 40% less while multitasking, or that the actual time required to complete one's tasks may increase by 40%. I think. Studies also show that multitasking increases the chance of error.

Which makes me feel loads better, because I was beginning to wonder if I just "wasn't doing it right." One of my most common forms of multitasking is to work on Project A on my computer, while scanning articles and images for my Victorian website on the scanner sitting next to my desk. Scanning is boring. I can't handle just sitting there and turning pages, so it seems logical to multitask: Work on something else, and pause to flip pages as needed.

Only it doesn't tend to work that way. Instead of making good progress on Project A, and getting a pile of scanning done, I find that both projects actually tend to suffer. All too often, I get distracted from Project A (and turn to something simpler, like e-mail or checking my eBay sales or playing a game). As for the scanning, all too often I end up rescanning the same page because I forgot whether I actually pushed the button.

My husband can attest to another hazard of "multitasking." When we lived in Virginia, my office was downstairs, the kitchen upstairs. Many a dinner -- and many a pan or teakettle -- burned to a crisp because I'd pop downstairs to do "one quick thing" while cooking. That's one reason why I always use a whistling teakettle, even though today my office is in the "breakfast nook" and the rate of burned dinners has decreased dramatically.

Mothers have multitasked for millennia, so I figured the problem wasn't simply that I was a dinosaur, less hardwired to multitasking than the generation born with a cell phone grafted to its fingers. So I decided to check a few articles to see whether the problem was more than "just me."

Unfortunately, although there are many articles on the evils of multitasking, those articles themselves can be confusing, as they provide different "examples" of what the author thinks multitasking actually is. One, for instance, sets up an example of a woman fixing a meal (I'm not sure which meal, since it involves eggs and a salad). The article defines mixing the eggs and washing the lettuce as "multitasking" steps, while heating the pan is "parallel processing." In my mind, this is not multitasking at all; it is simply a set of steps involved in the single task of "preparing a meal." Multitasking, to me, would be preparing the meal while popping back to my computer to answer e-mail. Other articles describe "exercising" and "listening to music" as a form of multitasking, and again, I disagree. Most of us use music as an integral part of exercising, to set the tempo for our workout. We're not doing two separate things - but if we were attempting to work out and hold a conversation, we might be.

Pursuing different projects within the same general time frame - i.e., during the same week or even the same day - is also not "multitasking." If one works on Project A for one hour and Project B for the next, or Project A on Monday and Project B on Tuesday, with the goal of completing five projects by Friday, this is not multitasking. Working on several projects at once is not the same as working on them simultaneously. Otherwise, we wouldn't need such concepts as "prioritizing" or "scheduling."

So here's my definition of "multitasking": being engaged simultaneously in two or more activities that require a comparable amount of concentration. For example, I cannot switch pages on the scanner without removing my focus from the computer. I must physically turn my chair, lift the book or magazine from the platform, turn the page, reposition the item, close the lid and push the button. It requires both hands, both eyes, and a modicum of brain power. If I am, say, editing this newsletter at the same time, that task also requires both hands (on the keyboard), both eyes (on the screen), my chair to be positioned facing the computer, and (one hopes) a modicum of brain power.

In short, multitasking involves what researchers describe as "switching." One is not, actually, doing two things at once. One is rapidly switching between tasks - edit a paragraph, "switch off" from that task, turn the chair, reposition the book on the scanner, "switch off" from that task, turn back, edit the next paragraph. Each switch requires a certain amount of physical adjustment (turn chair, take hands off keyboard, move book, hit button, turn chair, put hands back on keyboard). But more importantly to researchers, it requires a mental adjustment, known as "goal switching." Once you switch goals, the next step is "role activation" - I must go into edit mode, then into scan mode, then into edit mode. In each mode, I must focus on the types of tasks or steps involved in that task, and "switch off" the focus on the alternate task.

Even though the time involved in "goal switching" and "role activation" can be just a few tenths of a second, these switches add up. More significantly for writers, the more concentration that is required by a task (such as writing), the more we are likely to be distracted by the constant interruptions of multitasking. It's hard for a stream of thought to flow if it is constantly being diverted.

Obviously, we're not going to stop. There are too many demands on our time to hope that we can avoid multitasking altogether. However, if you're feeling frustrated, blocked, and unable to concentrate, this could be the culprit. Once you realize that multitasking isn't actually going to get your work done significantly faster, it can be reserved for the tasks that require the least brain-power. And writing definitely isn't one of those tasks!

Here are some interesting articles on the topic:

The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking, by Kendra Cherry
http://psychology.about.com/od/cognitivepsychology/a/costs-of-multitasking.htm

You Say Multitasking Like It's a Good Thing, by Charles Abate
http://www.nea.org/home/30584.htm

Multitasking: Good or Bad? By Roger Kay, Forbes
http://onforb.es/M91bUE

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Copyright © 2014 Moira Allen

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Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.

 

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