March 8, 2015 by Nathaniel Tower
I have taken multitasking to a new level.
About a week ago, I accomplished a feat previously unknown to humankind. I simultaneously ran, juggled, and watched videos on YouTube. If that’s not an example of a human making the most of his/her time, then I don’t know what is.
Just how did I accomplish this feat? Pure skill and determination, I tell you. But before you dub me the greatest human alive, let’s take a step back for a second. Ever since human multitasking was “invented,” there have been skeptics who’ve claimed it’s impossible. In short, human multitasking is the apparent ability of a human to accomplish more than one task at the same time. The debate isn’t whether or not humans can do two things at once (hey, look at me texting and driving). It’s whether or not humans can do two things successfully or well at the same time (oh, shit, I just crashed).
Can Humans Really Multitask?
Computers multitask all the time. In fact, my computer is performing over a dozen processes right now without any lag in ability. But computers are programmed to do this. Humans are not.
Of course, one might argue that humans are actually always multitasking. After all, isn’t my body pumping blood and breathing and digesting and doing a bunch of other biological stuff right now?
Sure, but that’s not what anyone means when they say they’re multitasking.
The doubters aren’t wrong. Sure, I can run, juggle, and watch videos simultaneously. But am I performing all three at a peak level? Of course not. The same is true when I try to write and listen to music or write and watch TV (I’ve yet to try writing while running or juggling, but someday I will).
Here’s the thing: when I run and juggle (more commonly referred to as joggling), I don’t do either one as well as I can. It’s much harder to run fast while juggling. It’s much harder to perform juggling tricks while running. If I want to do tricks, I must slow down. A lot. My top-end running speed while juggling is significantly slower than my top-end running speed sans three balls flying back and forth between my hands.
But all this seems obvious. Of course you are going to run slower if your arms are doing something else. Of course you can’t juggle as well if you are also trying to move forward and not get hit by cars or fall off the treadmill. I once ran a mile while juggling and wearing a 40-pound weight vest. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I wasn’t even close to my top speed. But is this really a sign of a human’s inability to multitask?
Yes and no. Every additional activity we add to the mix—whether physical obstacles or external stimuli—will have one of two effects:
1. The additional activities will become secondary.
2. The performance of all activities will suffer.
Multitasking And Writing
Let’s get away from joggling for a minute and explore writing. As a writer, I rarely choose to sit in a quiet room and just write. I much prefer to listen to music as I craft my brilliant prose. But here’s the thing: I’m not really doing both at the same time.
Allow me to explain. I’m a bit of an audiophile. I can listen to music while I write, but I can’t be an audiophile while I write. It’s impossible for me to really appreciate the music as I’m trying to figure out the next part of the plot or how to craft this sentence. If I really want to hear the music, I must stop writing. In other words, the music is a background activity that I am pseudo-performing while writing. In those moments, I’m not a writer and an audiophile. I’m a writer with music in the background.
I don’t believe my writing suffers from having the music on. No, just the music-listening suffers. But that’s because I’m not really trying to do both at the same time. I’m focusing on one task. When joggling, on the other hand, I’m focusing on both tasks—keep running and keep juggling. It’s true that both of these things seem to come second nature to me—it’s not like I’m actively telling myself to keep putting one foot in front of the other while also catching and throwing those balls. But I’m not fully a runner or a juggler in those moments.
Now, I said before that writing and listening to music doesn’t hurt my performance as a writer, but that also depends on what I’m listening to and what I’m trying to accomplish as a writer. Drafting is simple. I can listen to anything while I draft. But I can’t perform quality proofreading while listening to speed metal or punk. When I really want to focus on perfecting a final draft, I turn the music off completely. I know there are limits to human multitasking.
I’ve also recently become addicted to reading while running on the treadmill. I simply place my Kindle on the control panel of the treadmill and increase the text size. This is a case where the performance of each task is probably slightly deteriorated by the combination. I can’t run quite as fast or read quite as fast (although I think my comprehension is just as good). It’s gotten to the point where running outside almost feels like a waste of time because I can’t read at the same time.
We live in a world where everyone is always trying to multitask. Parents are glued to their cellphones at the playground. It’s even uncommon for someone to watch TV without another device in hand. We’re a multi-device society, always trying to squeeze in a little more productivity. In reality, we’re just doing everything a little worse—but at least we’re doing more stuff, right?
Naturally, there are limits to what we can do as multi-taskers. You can’t write well while you’re responding to every post on Facebook. Does this mean you shouldn’t listen to music while writing? Of course not. Any such universal suggestion would be foolish. Rather, the best advice is to do what works best for you. Sage-like wisdom, huh?
If I could, I would joggle while reading. But I don’t have enough hands for it. I haven’t figured out how to turn pages while juggling, and I’m not aware of a voice-activated app for Kindle that turns pages for you (surely there must be one). Besides, adding yet another activity that requires high capacity into the mix might not be in my best interest. After all, you can be really mediocre at a lot of things or really good at just a few things. I’d imagine reading while joggling on a treadmill would be a good way to end up with all my flesh ripped off.
Are you a multi-tasker? Share your experience in the comments.