Multitasking effectively is a strong component in a vigilant strategy of productivity and time management, but must come with a warning. If done poorly, it can have serious consequences.
Here is a nice little equation. Simple Repetitive Tasks + Mind Geared Towards Extreme Efficiency = Multitasking. For as long as I can remember I have been someone that constantly tries to run my life in the most efficient way. I’m sure everyone considers “efficiency” when going about their day-to-day tasks, a word that can mean very different things to different people; personally, I think of efficiency in an operations optimization mindset.
For example, before I level grind in an RPG, I put a lot of thought into the most efficient way to do it (considering probabilities of finding certain creatures and completing certain tasks), just as I would with a large excel task. Others may think of efficiency as jumping right into the task and learning on the fly. It’s hard to explain beyond that, but hopefully it will become more clear as you read on.
The Value of Multitasking
Putting this optimization mindset together with aspects of simple repetitive tasks such as gaining levels in a game or playing a stamina based game, I start to look for more things to do. What is the most my mind can take on at once? By overlapping tasks I can make the most of my time, so I find myself doing many things in parallel.
I remember, for example, last year I was leveling a stat in an MMORPG, waiting for stamina in an online CCG, trying to tie up loose ends in a DS RPG, while I was listening through my iTunes library trying to find songs to add to my dance mix.
At this point I am reminded that studies have shown that multitasking decreases the efficiency of the tasks involved. That’s when I started thinking about overall efficiency versus individual efficiency. It is true that often higher level multitasking will take away from each individual task. However, this does not necessarily indicate an overall efficiency fail.
There are tasks that need to be done with high concentration, and leave no room for overlap, but this is not what I was doing. The stamina game could only be played for a minute or two every ten minutes. The iTunes search was simply looking for a spark to excite my mind on a passive level. The MMO took a simple click on a fragmented basis, and the DS game was a continual thing to pick up the space in between.
Doing all of these tasks at once was clearly not the most efficient task for each individually, though. For example, certain songs would pass without me ever noticing while my concentration was split. However, considering efficiency as a whole, I was making better use of my time. With simple tasks such as these, there was space to fill with efficient multitasking.
With simple tasks such as these, there was space to fill with efficient multitasking.
The Downfall of Multitasking
Just as games have taught me the value of multitasking, I have also learned the value of not multitasking. There are tasks in games that cannot and should not be multitasked. The common trap I have run into is the “major task minor task trap”. It is easy to think that certain small tasks can be tacked on to any other objective, no matter how much the dominant task may demand attention.
The common trap I have run into is the “major task minor task trap”.
One of the best examples I can think of was trying to put together an old RPG with a minor Pokemon task. I was trying to hatch eggs in Pokemon by moving up and down a long stretch with my toe, while playing one of the old Phantasy Star games.
For anyone that has not played early RPGs, these games tend to lack some of the hand holding of newer games. It’s not like, “let me look at my map and see exactly where I need to go.” Instead it’s more like, “wait, the cave in the somewhat north east direction – is that what you said? And why do you only tell me to have a good journey now 😦 Tell me again… Sigh.”
What ended up happening (multiple times in different settings) was me keeping a constant passive eye on my Pokemon, only to realize that I had skillfully missed the one time I could get directions to some far off, not-intuitive-in-any-way dungeon. At which point I go to the wrong dungeon which is brutally hard, make it through and have the clutch realization that the princess is in another castle. Which is followed by a gg ragequit.
Another trap is found when working with a lot of small details, each with hefty consequences. This happens a lot with certain strategy games. For example, once or twice I have fooled myself into thinking I could get some homework done with enemy hoards approaching in Fire Emblem. I mean, in some of the later levels, you are spending a good couple minutes watching enemies that seem pretty irrelevant move to random positions each turn.
The problem with this? A random archer critical hitting a dinky low level ally because I mistakenly put him one space too close. Even worse, me not realizing until later in the match because I’m not paying attention. Normally, I would start over when a character dies, so it is obnoxious when I waste any time thinking my party is intact.
Likewise, in Advanced Wars or other strategy games, I am simply more prone to make mistakes when my mind is split. It is easier to think that the anti-air unit is one space too far to get to my bomber, or forget that the enemy is going to get their CO power this turn.
A good real life tie in of this comes from my job. I am in forensic accounting, where I deal with a lot of number extrapolation and organizing. Often, the projects will go into the litigation process where I am organizing and proofing things for our group’s expert witness. This is the epitome of many small details with grand ramifications.
These documents are searched through with a fine tooth comb and the smallest mistake could come back to bite a director in the ass. With this in mind I know that multitasking is not an option. Keep a clean mind, a clean desk, and a clean slate. Allowing for mental organization and preparation of tasks without needless multitasking has been helpful in keeping human error to a minimum.
Finding the Line
With these lessons in mind, the real question is when should I multitask and when should I focus all my attention on one objective. Each person has his/her own thresholds for what they can take on in different fields. If I could put my mind into Excel’s solver algorithm with restraints on speed and risk of error, and have it pop out a list of things to multitask I would do so, but alas, it is not that simple.
With these lessons in mind, the real question is when should I multitask and when should I focus all my attention on one objective.
Understanding how well we can effectively take in multiple stimuli and output is the first step. For example, I know I am particularly bad at listening to people or podcasts when my attention is divided. I can either reach a state where my mind entirely zones out the words in order to continue the task at hand (which is very hard for me to begin with) or my mind just races around the side conversation and it quickly becomes the focal point of my attention. I know people, however, that can very effectively read a book while being a passive member in a conversation. Pinpointing these kinds of capabilities and stumbling blocks is key.
Beyond that, a constant evaluation of the tasks at hand, the level of cognition required to interact with the projects and the consequences of mistakes takes purposeful consideration. Multitasking effectively is a strong component in a vigilant strategy of productivity and time management, but must come with a warning. If done poorly, it can have serious consequences.
Beyond that, a constant evaluation of the tasks at hand, the level of cognition required to interact with the projects and the consequences of mistakes takes purposeful consideration.
A Pensive Side Note
I can’t help but feel like much of the multitasking mindset is a pacing decision. One that partially spawns from the explosion of possible stimuli we are able to immerse ourselves in and the desire to participate in that sensory overload in order to keep up with the gradually accelerating pace of society.
I fear one possible branch of this tree leads to a Fahrenheit 451 style society where we lose the beauty in the activities we are doing. We only acknowledge that the “green blurs are grass” and “brown blurs are cows” (not sure why Bradbury associated the color brown with cows, but it always stuck with me). Thus I always try to take a moment to consider if what I am multitasking is bypassing beauty, and weigh that into the value of the optimization.
Thus I always try to take a moment to consider if what I am multitasking is bypassing beauty, and weigh that into the value of the optimization.
Are you Reading this While Level Grinding?
So what do you think about multitasking? Do you feel you have a pretty good sense of your own threshold for multitasking or do you perhaps take on too much and just try to deal with ramifications as they come? Got any interesting anecdotes of a time you felt the ramifications of multitasking? Also do you consider the balance of overall efficiency versus individual efficiency?
Until next time, game on and learn on!
PS: Fun little flash game enjoy 🙂