Chowdhury: The modern-day multitasking conundrum


Raisa Chowdhury, Columnist

There is just so much I could be doing right now. As I type up this article, I am simultaneously transitioning between reading an article about millennials, writing to my TA about problems I am facing with my C++ project, changing playlists on YouTube, checking my Facebook news feed, replying to emails from recruiters and texting a friend. Some of these I am doing because they are important and time sensitive, others simply because I am used to doing them all at once.

Let’s shed the unimportant stuff off the list: For the time being, let’s presume all our social media engagements or social interactions are trivial. Now let’s look at all the important things that we are actually expected to do in one given day: Go to student club meetings, prepare for internship interviews, study for midterm X, write paper Y, do problem set Z, and obviously there is always laundry.

Sure, we are at Northwestern; to survive, we have mastered the art of multitasking and ensuring we meet all our deadlines. Maybe we can move fluidly between doing assignments and studying for exams in completely unrelated subjects. Or we are now skilled in performing unrelated physical and mental activities all at the same time. To be completely honest, there is no other way. Unless the world decides to slow down and hand us one task at a time, which is nearly impossible to imagine at this point, there really is no way around multitasking. We have to be agile in switching between tasks just to keep up with everyone else.

But the increasing intensity of multitasking comes with a price. It is true that we can do more and know more today if we are great at multitasking, but is it possible that we are doing too much? Can we be doing too many things and having access to too much information? When does multitasking start to compromise the quality of everything we are doing? Unfortunately, the answer is almost always.

As cognitive scientist David Meyer acknowledges, our brain is limited in terms of its processing channels, the volume of data it can successfully absorb and the capacity of our working memory. When we multitask, activities that use the same processing channels compete for them simultaneously. In trying to split up our brain’s capacity, chances are that we are unable to allocate each activity the share it actually requires. This makes us less efficient: When completing more than two tasks at once, it can take us up to 50 percent longer to complete each task, depending on the complexity of the tasks at hand.

Additionally, doing more and more things in a given time span also reduces the quality of a completed task. For instance, I am pretty sure I would have dedicated more time to explore, to learn and to critically reflect on existing scientific research about multi-tasking if I was not anxious to quickly jump to finishing my C++ project also due in the next hour.

Meyer also states, and I am in full support of this claim, that multitasking can be hazardous. The resulting mental state of incessant stress can cause you to “crash and burn” and shut down your critical thinking abilities altogether. Remember the time when you had so much to do, your brain got nervous and you spent too long in deciding how to allocate your time? Or when you just took a nap instead? Or when you did so many things at once that you made errors in one or more of them?

Despite being familiar with these inherent problems of multitasking, I cannot say I will try and do fewer things today. I don’t think I have a choice. Is it reasonable just to refuse to meet all my deadlines because I want to do a better job in each of them? Because these deadlines do exist, I have to meet them regardless. In the 21st century world, where everyone appears to be in a race for one thing or another, I am not sure if any of us really have a choice but to become better and better at this unhealthy practice of multitasking.

Raisa Chowdhury is a McCormick junior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].