What’s Multitasking Doing to Me?

We believe that multitasking is the essential ingredient to being healthy, wealthy, and happy. We do it incessantly in our work lives and even in our personal lives. While conversing with the person across the dinner table, our Google Glass, or if you have upgraded, the VR goggle, keeps telling you of the latest tweet storm. At work, being Computer Scientists, we know of the multitask scheduling that is baked deep into all our computers. If that little microprocessor and the Operating System sitting on top of it can switch between tasks every 100 milliseconds and keep everyone happy, surely so can I. So I read a paper, actually a paragraph of it, before I remember I have to schedule a meeting, and while doing it, I forget where it is supposed to be. So I look up the invite in my Inbox and that gets me reminiscing of the previous mails from this sender. So I go into my wonderful journey down untrodden rabbit holes.

And then when we look to authoritative sources on whether multitasking is good for us, the overwhelming advice in the last few years has been to tell us that it is bad, really bad. It is doing terrible things to our brains and it is reducing our productivity. This is telling me that I think I am a good multitasker, but actually I suck at this job. Unless I am in that select 2% of the population who are called “supertaskers”, which I tell myself that of course I am.

So I sought to put myself into this deep thought bubble of the daily life as it will look if I set the multitasking part of me on a holiday. And while doing this thought exercise, I banished all other thoughts to the best of my mind’s ability. I also talked to people around me about how they felt they would function if they did more of the deep work. Being in an academic environment, my ready base of people consisted of:

  1. Me
  2. Students – undergraduate and graduate
  3. Administrative staff
  4. Faculty members
  5. University administrators (department heads, (assistant/associate) deans, etc.)

The answers I got from the different categories were surprisingly different. A common theme was that if they did the hours of deep work at a stretch as most experts tell us is good for us, they felt bad things will happen respectively, their grades will suffer, their advisors would be mad at them, the people they support would be mad at them, they will drop too many important balls up in the air, and the wheels of university will start to run wheezily. So let us keep that aspirational dream alive, of being one of the Gods of multitasking. The Hindu pantheon sure has a few of them.

Image result for multi tasking wired

Me

I started off on this experiment by sharing with my immediate colleagues, the ones I work most closely with through in-person interactions, that I am going to not be instantly available and that my meeting schedule will be all packed together over 2 days in a week. They seemed to take this in their stride – heck, I noticed a glint in the eyes of some that I am going out of their hairs for extended periods of time. Of course, I had no way of setting expectations for the vastly larger number of people with whom I have digital, rather than in-person communication. I toyed with the idea of an email vacation message saying “The recipient of the mail is right now in a deep trance, er, deep work and will get back to you when he is done with that.” but decided against it.

My realization at the end of the 2 week period was that I spent a sizable part of my day in short interactions, both digital and in-person. These interactions, while not qualifying as deep work by any stretch, kept the gears in motion and led, sometime through a long series of steps, to something tangible and of some value to me and to my colleagues a thesis completed, a paper submitted, a student in my class having her academic probation lifted. So I could not arbitrarily delay these short interactions without delaying the tangible end point. I also realized that I did need to move from one technical topic to another fairly efficiently (for context: I lead a research group with about 12 graduate researchers, 3 Research Scientists, and 5 undergraduate researchers, and teach a class each semester with about 100 students). I also paid particular attention to my level of productivity (hard enough as it is to measure) when I did switch. I realized I needed to get better, much better, at this and with my current state, I needed to spend at least an hour on a technical topic, reading or writing, before moving on. Actually two or more hours is preferable. But wait … there is that oh so pressing email that needs my attention, and with the “fierce urgency of now“, but now turned on its head.

Undergraduate and graduate students

When the students are taking classes, most said they needed short bursts of time when they focused on the class assignment at hand before they had to switch. During the lecture itself, they admitted to being more distracted than they should because they felt that there are always other avenues to catch up on the material being covered in the lecture. Most professors make their presentation slides available and some provide audio, or even, video recordings of their lectures. And of course there is the water hose of information on the topics on the Internet. So the students had ample scope for rationalizing away their lack of deep work in the class. However, when our discussion prompted some introspection on their part, most felt that if they could eliminate distractions and really participate in the activities during the lecture, they would be better served. They would spend less time outside of the lecture room understanding the topics of the class.

For students who are beyond the grit and grime of taking classes, they said they needed long intense periods of concentration on the problem they are working on. But even here, the more idyllic representation of a scientist staring out to infinity thinking hard on a problem, has become outmoded. It is intense but still short (30 minutes to an hour) bouts of reading a paper, sketching out a design on your note pad (digital or physical), doing some software coding, running some software experiments, and then writing up what you did.

Administrative staff

The administrative staff that support our research group must be one of those 2% of the population, super-efficient multitaskers. They sit in shared or open office space and have to juggle so many tasks. At the same time, slip-ups in some of the tasks can have some unpleasant consequences – a zero getting dropped from your budget number or a presentation to a funding agency showing up with a whopper of a typo on slide 1. So they have to be able to put their concentration into these short-running tasks. My staff members tell me that it helps when they can arrange the tasks to have some homogeneity to them. Thus, the 5 back-to-back tasks all deal with doing budget projections on 5 different research accounts. But this is a luxury that they cannot always afford, especially on those days when we all think that all our tasks are the drop-dead urgent ones and only these tasks fall in that category.

Faculty colleagues

Talking to my fellow faculty members, I realize that they have to be masters at multitasking and the degree of multitasking seems to progressively go up as you move up the academic ladder. I was reassured to know that my experience with multitasking (see above, if you have been multitasking and have lost that thread) was not atypical. My colleagues felt that they did a little too much, that they needed to get better at it, and that it is not avoidable in its entirety. There is need for intense concentration and focus on a deeply technical task and that happens either every day or once every few days. Such periods are broken up by many small chunks of work, some technical and some not so much.

They also felt that being a successful academic means that we have to get better and better at the multitasking ability. This ability to compartmentalize and focus on something deep has to co-exist with “shallow work” and the switch needs to happen without giving you whiplash. Being pulled in too many different directions, be it technical (too many divergent projects) or administrative (too many committees or initiatives), is of course counter-productive. The power of NO is an important tool to have in your toolchest to prevent that from happening and add to that, the power of forbearance to not go chasing after the next shiny new technical toy.

University administrators

Many of my university administrator colleagues took their jobs as a mission to serve the wider academic community, to be that rising tide that lifts the large, nay humongous, ship that a large public university is. This entailed an inevitable amount of multitasking responding to that request from a faculty member, giving a short introductory speech at this colloquium, and sitting in on the hour-long meeting where their attention will be needed for five minutes, but those are crucial five minutes. What they felt was that they could be efficient and effective in that fire hose of tasks if they had some guiding principles in their head. It is crucial to form these guiding principles early on and moderate them based on new data and with those principles in your scabbard, it is possible to navigate the tasks with reasonable consistency.

The most succinct of guiding principles was offered up by the Mahatma. That has to be obviously translated to the different constituents of a university and to the rough and tumble of university administration. But a handful of guiding principles I was told are key to making progress through the minutiae of many many shallow tasks. And then one of the university administrators, who I marvel at, told me how he staunchly blocked off part of his weekday, not a big part, but a fixed number of hours each week, to read up on technical accomplishments of faculty in his college. Even as he resisted the fierce urgency of that next email, this activity anchored him and made him navigate the thickets better.


So I think it is on us to multitask even as we try to do deep work and meaningful work. It is almost as if our brain needs to have these two modes knocking off that slew of 10 emails that we tell are super urgent in one mode and trying to understand what that complex equation really means in the other. The better we can switch between these modes at the drop of the proverbial hat, the better a shot we will have at being healthy, wealthy, and wise. And when we want to switch our brain to that low-energy state, there is always the comfort of that roll of messages from the social network of our choice.

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