Wednesday, March 28, 2007

To Multitask or To Not Multitask

John Dorner contrasted two articles: IT multitasking productivity and the problems of multitasking. His post made me also wonder about the conflicting results from these two different research approaches.

If we believe that multitasking diminishes our ability to stay on thinking-kinds of tasks, what are we going to do about it? Multitasking is the way teenagers (and younger), college students and some adults go about their day-to-day lives. My attempts to convince my teenager to do his schoolwork differently has resulted in zero change. Are these multitasking youngsters and college students less intelligent than we were when we were young? Certainly not, in fact, I believe my kids are much smarter than I ever was.

They are exposed to so many more environments, cultures, technologies, and ideas. This exposure helps them to be receptive, tolerant, and question differing viewpoints, ideas, and concepts.

Definitely, they are learning differently than we learned. So the question again is what do we do about working and educating in multitasking environments? In the education arena, we should rethink how we teach these kids. Terry Sale gives a good example of how we should change the way we teach language arts.

The IT multitasking productivity research provided evidence that multitasking is productive in the long run, not in the short-term. The researchers also found that diversity of social networks is important.

While our kids are multitasking, they are also expanding their social contacts and exposure multi-fold. Kids are communicating with multiple friends (friends of friends) at any given time. Our kids are constantly communicating, communicating, and communicating.

They may never see some of these friends face-to-face. As my son plays virtual games with kids from across the world, he socializes with and learns from them. The other night I asked him why he did not come downstairs when I wanted him to. His reply was “I was on my way down, but my friend from Australia got online (Xbox 360) and we just started talking (for about 15 minutes).” They weren’t playing a virtual game; they were just talking (through their headsets--real, live voices). Talking with a friend who lives where it is daytime when it is nighttime at our house was an acceptable excuse. What opportunities! What exposure! What fun!

The Aral and Van Alstyne research tells us that diversity of information from diverse social networks produces more revenues, more completed projects, etc. See Sinal Aral’s comment and the research article abstract.

What does the research suggest? Multitask by seeking diverse information from diverse sources while using a variety of communications methods.

So what about the other research that says multitasking can be bad? My approach is to take periodic breaks from multitasking. When I have those tasks that need concentrated attention—like reviewing a research journal article—I leave the office and find a place that has no Internet access (yes, a few restaurants in this small Southern university town do not have free wireless access).

I am also glad to report that the two older kids are able to remove themselves for a short time (albeit, much shorter time period than I would like) to concentrate on their more serious school subjects during crunch times.

I will continue to seek diverse information and communications while multitasking. Periodically, I will interrupt the multitasking for concentrated thought—I know no other way to do my job.

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