My son Henry is currently engaged in a job search, and he tells me that many HR departments are actually screening for (not against) multitaskers.
Recent research on multitasking shows that multitaskers actually accomplish less than workers who are able to focus their thinking on one-thing-at-a-time, but apparently the geniuses in HR are themselves too scatterbrained to have taken notice of this glaring reality.
It could be that the HR scatterbrains do not see this because they, like other multitaskers, believe that multitasking is more productive than it actually is. They cannot imagine not responding immediately to their e-mails, tweets, phone calls, and other demands on their attention, or glancing obsessively at their smartphones.
More recently, challenges to the ethos of multitasking have begun to emerge. This is attributable to the fact that when it comes to the brain’s ability to pay attention, it focuses on concepts sequentially and not on two things at once.
Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, for example, and several states have now made that particular form of multitasking illegal. In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise. In 2005, the BBC reported on a research study, funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London, that found, “workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.”
Multitasking may also be taking a toll on the economy. One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers, and found they took an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail before returning to their original task. Discussing multitasking with the New York Times in 2007, Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that multitasking costs the US economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.
Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshaling the power of as many technologies as possible.
According to Dr. Clifford Nast, who teaches communications at Stanford and has authored The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, “the top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they’re using media. So when they’re writing a paper, they’re also Facebooking, listening to music, texting, Twittering, et cetera.”
Says Nast: “People who multitask all the time can’t filter out irrelevancy. They can’t manage a working memory. They’re chronically distracted.”
Nast suspects there may be a high correlation between ADHD and multitasking, but he hasn’t done the research on that yet. But we may all be pressuring ourselves to become ADHDers and Ritalin-addicted.
Says Nast: ” It turns out that attention deficit is a bit of a misnomer. Pretty much everyone has the same amount of attention to allocate. It’s where we allocate it. And what people with attention deficit do is they spread their attention over what we would call an inappropriately large span of stimuli, whereas non-attention-deficit people focus. That’s exactly what multiple media and multitasking train you to do, spread your attention over a very large area–so there’s very likely relationships.”
Maybe Henry will find at least one smart HR person in financial services in Florida who understands that a person needs to focus on accomplishments in an environment in which one is expected to be versatile. (If you know of such a person, please let me know.)
Says Henry: “I’d rather do one thing well than many things poorly.”
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