Multitasking Lies, Truths and a Dare
A well-informed grasp of multitasking can improve efficiency
By Scott Warner, MLT(ASCP)
October 8, 2012
If, during a Saturday last August, you were reading The Wall Street Journal while watching the morning news, munching flax seed toast, listening for the latest tweet to chirp on your smartphone, and cycling your recumbent bike up imaginary hills, you might have read this by science writer David DiSalvo: "Thanks to better spatial-reasoning skills, men have an edge over women in multitasking, a new study finds."1 Apparently, men juggle tasks with abstract ease over women.
This might be news to female techs watching their male counterparts try to pop the top on a tube and answer the telephone at the same time. As it turns out, the truth about multitasking is less than sensational but essential to your paperless strategy.
Unsurprisingly, some studies have found that women are better multitaskers than men. A psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire designed a study in which subjects performed simultaneous tasks and found that women "significantly" outperformed men. Women, it seems, are better able to reflect on problems while juggling them, using their ability to strategize a solution.2
Turn off the iPod, stop texting, and back up the Google van. What?
Multitasking is a term borrowed from computer engineering, meaning doing two or more things at once. Laboratory examples are searching on a computer while talking on the telephone or running a stat crossmatch while examining a peripheral smear under the microscope. We multitask all the time, right?
Except multitasking is a lie. Computers share resources (processor, motherboard, graphics card, etc.) by scheduling and rapidly switching tasks. Interleaved tasks appear to happen simultaneously, but it's an illusion. Each time you're waiting for your computer to do something or respond, it's hit a multitasking bottleneck. Like people, some computers are poor multitaskers.
The myth of human multitasking has grown with the ability of computers, but it's just as big a lie. According to research, humans divide attention and switch between tasks; we simply can't focus on more than one thing at a time. "People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller. It's for the same reason your computer switches tasks: your brain, like a computer, shares limited resources.3
Consider that a tech working a chemistry bench may, for example, prioritize and run tests to optimize resources: specimens are loaded into a centrifuge (10 minutes); during that time a stat urine drug screen is started (5 minutes); while that is cooking results from a previous run are verified. Tasks, times and expected outcomes are saved in short-term memory. While this seems like multitasking, it's really doing what a computer does: prioritize, schedule, run and cache.
Self-imposed interruptions, such as verifying results while another test is running, are expected. Telephone calls, emails, incoming faxes, stat drop offs and other interruptions are derailing. A study at the University of California at Irvine finds that interrupted office workers take 25 minutes to refocus on task. One research firm analyst estimates that extreme multitasking costs $650 billion annually in lost productivity.4
Multitasking well -- dividing attention among several tasks -- is a hallmark of a good lab tech, but it doesn't stop at the office door. More technology has put greater demands on management, too. Mired in what Fast Company calls a "slow-growth, high-anxiety economy" beset by new regulations, we are expected to get more done, innovate more, not replace people we've lost, and do their work anyway. Most of us are busier than ever and getting less support than ever before.5
The news isn't all bad. Now that we know what multitasking is -- dividing attention -- we can test our limits and optimize our technology. The trick, as one career advisor points out, is knowing what you can lump together; he suggests only multitasking non-urgent tasks, ideally choosing those that require little thought. For example, you might clean up your email inbox and do a literature search simultaneously; neither task requires critical thinking and can wait if you don't finish.6
Good managers do more, often juggling several projects. Bench skills that use known quantities (method capabilities, volumes, etc.) are useless. Projects are often non-linear or problems can seem intractable, requiring completely new skills. All this, and technology too. Gr8, wtvr, idk. lol.
Here's a dare, as suggested by one staffing firm:7 for the next week, unplug. Answer your emails and return telephone calls only at set times; turn off your pager or cell phone during meetings; use caller ID to screen telephone calls; don't text, tweet, or blog; turn off your computer altogether on Friday. Focus on eliminating distractions and use whatever is left to find your balance. You just might have more time to deal with all that paper that's been piling up in your office.
Scott Warner is lab manager at Penobscot Valley Hospital, Lincoln, Maine.
1. DiSalvo D. The busy-many advantage. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444270404577607894130447720.html. Last accessed: 9/2/12.
2. Gray R. Scientists prove that women are better at multitasking than men. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/7896385/Scientists-prove-that-women-are-better-at-multitasking-than-men.html. Last accessed: 9/3/12.
3. Hamilton J. Think you're multitasking? Think again. Available at: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95256794. Last accessed: 9/3/12.
4. Rosen C. The myth of multitasking. Available at: http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-myth-of-multitasking. Last accessed: 9/3/12.
5. Overholt A. The art of multitasking. Available at: http://www.fastcompany.com/45388/art-multitasking. Last accessed: 9/3/12.
6. Gomez A. Multitasking at work. Available at: http://www.askmen.com/money/career/47b_career.html. Last accessed: 9/3/12.
7. Spherion. Multitasking the right way. Available at: http://www.spherion.com/careers/Seymour_%20Multitasking-June07.jsp. Last accessed: 9/3/12.
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