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COLUMN | TIM’S BIT: Multitasking doesn’t exist

So put the phone away and pay attention already

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Image Credits: Ally Mauro (Flickr)

Tim’s Bit: Tirades on our stupidest things. . . is a web-exclusive column featuring Tim Mottishaw’s comedic tirades on some of our humanity’s dumbest problems, with regards to culture, society and politics. Read more Tim’s Bit here!


How did we become so connected to our devices that the idea of focusing or ‘monotasking’ ceased to exist — or became one of those things your grandparents used to do?

Attention spans are getting shorter, and multitasking is becoming a required trait for even basic tasks like watching television. It’s rare today to find someone focusing on one task at a time. We watch TV while scrolling through Twitter feeds on the side. We converse with friends next to us while we type on our phones. We write articles that have hyperlinks or memes in them.

Not all forms of multitasking have negative results. It’s long been understood that music can have an effect on how you focus. Some studies have even shown that how well you focus actually depends on how much you enjoy the music playing. Some people study with rock or jazz in the background — I study with classical music playing.

In this case, music while studying or doing housework becomes something to help you hone your focus to the reading, sweeping, writing, or other task at hand. You can watch TV or a movie and still knit, if you are a skilled enough knitter. Yet trying to watch TV while playing Candy Crush more often is just ‘task-switching’ over multitasking, without you really realising it. The worst part is when you accidentally miss that ‘oh my god’ scene in your favourite TV show because you were activating a colour bomb on level 135.

The key is that the music requires passive attention, where playing on your phone requires active attention. It’s a question of the complexity of the tasks or the focus required. This is why you are not allowed to text and drive at the same time, or why there are very few people, if any, who can text and talk at the same time.

I get it. We think that because we can have two conversations with two different people on WhatsApp at the same time, there’s no difference. Yet, there is. Those chats are not happening at once. It’s one message and then the next — and even this task-switching has limits.

There has been a trend lately for people to focus on the conversation with the person in front of them, phones face-down or in a basket over dinner. Similarly, teachers are asking students to turn their tech off in high school classrooms. It’s a matter of focus. New studies even show that we learn better with pen and paper than we do with a laptop.

It’s also a matter of respect. The prof spent time building her lesson plan for you to learn. Your friends made an effort to show up for dinner with you. We need to start remembering to return that focus and effort, and to not be tricked into thinking that “Oh, one sec” is acceptable simply because you think you can.

Maybe multitasking results from a fear of missing out, maybe it is simple conditioning, or even a myth that has taken hold as fact — sort of like the idea that Einstein was bad at math as a child, or that humans have only five senses. I think that multitasking is actually more a bunch of hooey than fact. So turn your phone off, look at that one task or person in front of you, and focus on them. Everything else will be there when the task at hand ends.
Trust me, if the world ends while you’re there in that moment, having your phone won’t even matter.

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