Mental and physical fatigue and multitasking

Then and Now

source: Reddit


I've been sitting at the computer for several hours now. For a while I worked on my research paper. When I need to reduce the cognitive load I popped on to Facebook for a bit. Then, I caught up on the latest posts for my course and spent some time reading a couple of articles. After that I replied to some emails and logged in to my account to pay an e-bill.

So, I did some research and writing, I socialized, I played a game, read some news, wrote some correspondence, paid some bills.

Every time I switched my focus, I did so because I was ready for a change bit not quite ready to go back to the cognitively demanding activity. Even after all that time doing something other than my paper, I'm still not ready - still not feeling like I'm ready to give it my best. Of course, when I really think about it, I've not been active. While my brain is switching activities, my body is still in the same position.

Lately I've been doing my coursework while walking on the treadmill and found that my powers of concentration are much stronger. Not only that, I can sustain effort on one activity far longer than I could if I was sitting at the desk task switching.

My research paper, ironically, is on multitasking and I will be posting more on that research later. As I posted elsewhere, distractability has long been an issue of concern for educators. Then, in the 1960s a new term emerged describing a computer's ability to perform more than one task seemingly simultaneously. By the 1980s, lots of people knew about a computer's ability to multitask and the notion sounded good enough for people to try. At this time, use of the word distractability decreased, and multitasking increased. (Check it out using the very cool Google NGram Viewer).

Now, I'm not saying there is a direct correlation, but it wouldn't surprise me. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and us humans work hard to avoid it. Given our penchant for describing things in the best light possible, and rationalizing poor decisions or unfortunate situations I think we have simply re-branded distraction as purposeful and productive multitasking. Sitting at the computer is more appealing to me than reading on the treadmill because the potential for getting more things done at once is alluring.

It is clear though... crystal clear... that multitasking doesn't do anyone any good. The problem is we think we are the exceptions to the rule, we are the ones for whom the research does not apply. Well, the hard truth is that there are no exceptions. We all suck at trying to do a bunch of things at the same time.

So, does knowing this help me better manage my workload?

I wrote this during a break from writing report cards in a browser window with more than a dozen tabs open.

Self-control is another big part of the multitasking picture, but that's for another day. I need to get back to my report cards. Maybe on your break you could share strategies you use to manage multitasking in the comments below!

What do you think? Share you thoughts below...

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