Multitasker: A person who can successfully engage in more than one activity at the same time or serially, switching one’s attention back and forth from one activity to another without disruption to progress of the activities.
I made the above definition up, didn’t find one online that I liked. And yes, I had three web searches running at the same time to cross compare that data. While writing this blog post. With an episode of Scandal on the television. A texting conversation on my phone. And I was also talking to my dog. Because I am a multitasker.
If you search the web, you will come across dozens of articles telling you to stop trying to multitask. It destroys your brain, slows you down, increases your incidents of error. This is what happens to someone who is trying to multitask when they should unitask. Unitaskers might try to do a lot of things at once, but their brain is switching from one task to another and having to stop and start and recall during each trade-off, they are not actually working on multiple projects simultaneously; thus they are switch-tasking.
An article in The New Yorker discusses the likelihood of supertaskers, of which only 2% of the population might be at this extreme level of multitasking. I like to think I’m among the more common multitasking folk, I don’t need to wear a cape and be a supertasker.
It’s more than just “getting a lot done”. We do tend to get a lot done. Simultaneously. But that’s just being productive, not all multitaskers are productive, I know several that multitask at wasting time. A true multitasker’s performance will improve with the more they are doing at one time.
A true multitasker will relate to the following traits and nod their head thinking, yup, that’s me. If you read these and think, this sounds insane, then you are not a multitasker and you really need to focus on becoming a unitasker.
- You use both ears at one time – for different soundtracks. Multitaskers will be able to take in two conversations at one time, perhaps follow along with the juicy gossip being shared at a nearby table and participate in their own conversation with their friend, while also texting a third conversation on their mobile. In fact, if a setting is too quiet or empty, the multitasker might struggle to focus.
- You need extra sensory input at all times. Multitaskers can’t function without lots of extra sensory inputs; the exact opposite of someone diagnosed with ADD who might need to find a quiet corner in a library and wear noise-canceling headphones to focus on studying for a test. Multitaskers focus best in chaotic, noisy locations. They will turn the TV or radio on when they need to study or pick a spot in a busy coffee shop to work.
- You can take a break and pick up exactly where you left off. Multitaskers don’t need to reread the email they were working on or flip backwards by one page in a book. They actually get annoyed with the recaps television shows put at the beginning of a new episode. Their minds put a bookmark exactly where they stopped on one activity and waited for their attention to return to it so they can keep moving forward.
- Performance improves when there is more to do. Unlike a unitasker who is switch-tasking, and can still get a lot done, a multitasker’s work production is better when there is more of it. Multitaskers know this too, they are often complaining they are bored and seek out more responsibilities or activities to pile onto their workload, more work makes their brains happy, not strained.
Still not sure if you are a multitasker? Follow a simple test from the Potential Project in Denmark.
Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper and time yourself as you carry out these two tasks:
- On line one, write: I am a great multitasker
- On line two, write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
Note your time to complete the above, that is your unitasking time.
You are now going to repeat the test for your multitasking time.
Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the second, then the next letter in the sentence on the first line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line until you complete both the sentence and the number sequence.
A multitasker will be able to complete the task with no frustration, with no errors, and in just a slightly longer amount of time than the first round. Unitaskers will likely take twice as long, have a few errors, and be quite frustrated with the test… which is even more evidence you should learn how to love your unitasking-self and stop trying to multitask.
My score? 19 seconds on the first round, 26 on the second – with no errors.