doodling while I listen to you talk is not multitasking

April 22, 2011 § Leave a comment

I read a new piece slagging multitasking – definitely read it if you get a chance.  They find that either multitasking literally hurts your ability to reason or people with terrible reasoning skills become multitaskers.   (Later I saw this back and forth exchange on it)  Of course after reading that, I don’t think I am a real multitasker.  I can only “multitask” for very mundane things…like multiple chat windows or half reading something and half watching something else.  I don’t think that’s really multitasking, though.  That is just the curse of a short attention span being stirred into the background noise.

Like the author at the second link, it was while listening to an audiobook style podcast that I realized how completely unable I was to do anything else that required real mental effort at the same time.  And even small observations, ordinary attention-wandering stuff, would result in a few seconds of mental time travel on the podcast.  It leads me to think that multitasking at work is possible only to the extent that the part of the job that involves engaging with people in chat and email is social animal, instinct level basic.  I suspect if I am  multitasking at a job, it’s because there are big chunks of that job that just don’t take much mental wattage to do and quick response time is more important than problem solving.

Also, it occurred to me that the reason talk radio is irritatingly repetitive is so that you don’t lose your place when you take a little mental side trip.  After reading those articles, I think the beating-a-topic-to-death part of talk radio isn’t about filling dead air time, its so we can leave for a few seconds and rejoin the broadcast effortlessly.  It’s  a feature, not a bug.  I bet people who describe themselves as multitaskers love talk radio and CNN and anything else that plays in a short loop.

Doodling doesn’t count as a “task.”  I have been a doodler since grade school.  Let’s be clear, doodling is not drawing.  Drawing is a conscious, conscientious action.  Doodling is almost muscle memory, it is all about patterns and often the same ones (wine glasses, eyeglasses, and arrows for me) over and over.  I would say that doodling is how I pay attention;  it’s a strategy I use to keep myself engaged and listening.   Driving and doodling are the same thing in that they occupy just barely enough of my mind that my attention won’t drift completely away from the single thought or stream I want to follow.  And driving and scribbling nonsense patterns is a recognizably different sort of attention than, say, when I am taking written notes.  That is more a rote excesize: taking notes is committing an argument to memory rather than trying to find interesting pieces of it to absorb naturally.  I couldn’t tell you which strategy works better in the short term, but I am pretty sure the doodling method is better for putting at least some part of a  lesson into a more permanent toolbox.

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