Multitasking Is Just Rapid Task-Switching, And Task-Switching Is A Drain

I’ve written before about how my experience of switching between two tasks isn’t three things—the first task, the switch, and the second task—but in fact five things—the first task, winding down from the first task, the switch, winding up for the new task, and the second task. There’s some related suggestion in this Guardian piece that neuroscience is putting the lie to the idea of multitasking.

Later, I realised when I interviewed the experts and studied their research that there were many reasons why my attention was starting to heal from that first day. Prof Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained one to me. He said “your brain can only produce one or two thoughts” in your conscious mind at once. That’s it. “We’re very, very single-minded.” We have “very limited cognitive capacity”. But we have fallen for an enormous delusion. The average teenager now believes they can follow six forms of media at the same time. When neuroscientists studied this, they found that when people believe they are doing several things at once, they are actually juggling. “They’re switching back and forth. They don’t notice the switching because their brain sort of papers it over to give a seamless experience of consciousness, but what they’re actually doing is switching and reconfiguring their brain moment-to-moment, task-to-task – [and] that comes with a cost.” Imagine, say, you are doing your tax return, and you receive a text, and you look at it – it’s only a glance, taking three seconds – and then you go back to your tax return. In that moment, “your brain has to reconfigure, when it goes from one task to another”, he said. You have to remember what you were doing before, and you have to remember what you thought about it. When this happens, the evidence shows that “your performance drops. You’re slower. All as a result of the switching.”

Apparently this is called “the switch-cost effect” and in it “you aren’t only losing the little bursts of time you spend [briefly switching to a second task] – you are also losing the time it takes to refocus afterwards”.

The time-loss phrasing seems too enmeshed in the corporate concept of “productivity” for my taste—it’s more important, I think, to speak of cognitive resources than of time—but the effect itself is interesting and certainly relevant to my autistic experience of task switching.

I’ve heard before of this idea that multitasking is a cognitive myth, and I sort of feel like if people came around to the idea that multitasking is just a resource-hogging juggle, it might be easier for autistic people to communicate the degrees to which task switching generally can be an even more intense resource drain for us.

The piece also gets a bit into the idea of flow, which autistic people might recognize as hyperfocus, and in so doing underscores a crucial point that i feel gets lost when all the actually-autistic people talk about hyperfocus as a superpower, especially in an employment context.

I later interviewed Prof Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Claremont, California, who was the first scientist to study flow states and researched them for more than 40 years. From his research, I learned there are three key factors which you need to get into flow. First you need to choose one goal. Flow takes all your mental energy, deployed deliberately in one direction. Second, that goal needs to be meaningful to you – you can’t flow into a goal that you don’t care about. Third, it helps if what you are doing is at the edge of your abilities – if, say, the rock you are climbing is slightly higher and harder than the last rock you climbed.

Emphasis mine, because this is the thing that always seems missing. I’ve never in my life experienced hyperfocus when the goal was imposed upon me, let alone have I ever experienced it on-demand.

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Bix F.

The unsupported use case of a disordered*, mediocre midlife in St. Johns, Oregon—now with added global pandemic and climate crisis. Read more.