Sunday, January 24, 2010

MULTI-TASKING and Other Foolishness

“Buzz Words” have long been a staple of American business (I’m sure foreign business has their own, but let them deal with theirs in their own way).

These words and phrases are shorthand for concepts that, far too often, the users don’t really understand. Subsequently, these words and phrases have become concepts unto themselves. It has become increasingly clear that many Americans have lost the ability to clearly and effectively communicate within the confines of the English language. Nowhere is this more evident than in American business; an environ increasingly populated by people who utter these words and phrases as though they are sacred mantras. They are not mantras, or even intelligible; they're foolishness, transcribed into easily digestible word-bites by unthinking cheerleaders to be gobbled up as a source of motivation.

The one currently most popular is also the one that particularly enrages me:

MULTI-TASKING: This form of foolishness conjures up the image of one performing multiple tasks simultaneously; having a phone conversation, working on a spreadsheet or report and perhaps reading or answering an email, all at the same time. The truth is that this creates a stress absorbed work environment, where very little is actually accomplished. The results of a “high multitasking individual” are a trail of undone or poorly done projects because no single issue is given the amount of concentration it deserves. “Multitasking” is an excuse for a disordered mind that has been redefined as an attribute to which we should aspire. Alas, it is even listed as a requirement for most jobs today.

Do FOCUS and CONCENTRATION no longer have value?

I expect management to assign tasks, and prioritize those tasks (A, B, C, D, etc.) Is that too much to ask? If asked what I am working on, and my response is “A”, and then I am immediately quizzed on how “B” and “D” are coming, my response is generally “well, I have been working on ‘A’, has there been a change in priority?” Then, I am often admonished that “multitasking” is a skill that I should develop. “Multitasking” is not a skill; it’s a disorder and I have no interest in developing it. I have enough problems already. Perhaps prioritization is a skill that management should develop, rather than raising “willfully acquired ADD” to a paragon of virtue. Perhaps they would, but they may be to busy "multitasking" to actually think.

Have you ever been watching TV, while engrossed in thought about another subject that's on your mind, and suddenly realize that the visuals and sound eminating from your TV have totally eluded you and you have no idea, whatsoever, what has been happening? That is multitasking!

Not only is "multitasking" impossible to do with any degree of efficiency, it is highly undesirable in a work environment.

So, you don't believe me? Will you believe Stanford University?
Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows
Think you can talk on the phone, send an instant message and read your e-mail all at once? Stanford researchers say even trying may impair your cognitive control.

Attention, multitaskers (if you can pay attention, that is): Your brain may be in trouble.

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.

High-tech jugglers are everywhere – keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through homework assignments.

But after putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the researchers realized those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price.

"They're suckers for irrelevancy," said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "Everything distracts them."

Social scientists have long assumed that it's impossible to process more than one string of information at a time. The brain just can't do it. But many researchers have guessed that people who appear to multitask must have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to.

Is there a gift?

So Nass and his colleagues, Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, set out to learn what gives multitaskers their edge. What is their gift?

"We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it," said Ophir, the study's lead author and a researcher in Stanford's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

In each of their tests, the researchers split their subjects into two groups: those who regularly do a lot of media multitasking and those who don't.

In one experiment, the groups were shown sets of two red rectangles alone or surrounded by two, four or six blue rectangles. Each configuration was flashed twice, and the participants had to determine whether the two red rectangles in the second frame were in a different position than in the first frame.

They were told to ignore the blue rectangles, and the low multitaskers had no problem doing that. But the high multitaskers were constantly distracted by the irrelevant blue images. Their performance was horrible.

Because the high multitaskers showed they couldn't ignore things, the researchers figured they were better at storing and organizing information. Maybe they had better memories.

The second test proved that theory wrong. After being shown sequences of alphabetical letters, the high multitaskers did a lousy job at remembering when a letter was making a repeat appearance.

"The low multitaskers did great," Ophir said. "The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains."

Still puzzled

Puzzled but not yet stumped on why the heavy multitaskers weren't performing well, the researchers conducted a third test. If the heavy multitaskers couldn't filter out irrelevant information or organize their memories, perhaps they excelled at switching from one thing to another faster and better than anyone else.

Wrong again, the study found.

The test subjects were shown images of letters and numbers at the same time and instructed what to focus on. When they were told to pay attention to numbers, they had to determine if the digits were even or odd. When told to concentrate on letters, they had to say whether they were vowels or consonants.

Again, the heavy multitaskers underperformed the light multitaskers.

"They couldn't help thinking about the task they weren't doing," Ophir said. "The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds."

The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But they're convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could.

"When they're in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they're not able to filter out what's not relevant to their current goal," said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. "That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information."

So maybe it's time to stop e-mailing if you're following the game on TV, and rethink singing along with the radio if you're reading the latest news online. By doing less, you might accomplish more.

Among my other least favorites:

Thinking “Outside the Box”: Has the simple term “creativity” lost its punch? Is not “The Box” the corporate mindset? If we need to exit “The Box” to think creatively, perhaps we should rethink the whole concept of “The Box”, no? Venturing too far outside "The Box" is a dicey proposition.

Let Me Pick your Brain: A particularly disgusting mental image. Can we no longer just ask for an opinion, a personal view or outlook, without conjuring a mental image of some sort of pseudo-surgical procedure? I suspect that many of these “brain pickers’ are representing the “brain boogers” they accumulate as their own.

Team Player: Old, jaded and useless. The fact that one has to stipulate this fact says a lot about the state of corporate America and those that inhabit it. Essentially, this states that “I am not a back-stabber and I support my peers, as well as the goals of the company”. Would a back-stabbing, self-absorbed narcissist actually admit it? Clearly not; back-stabbing, self-absorbed narcissists seem to rise to the top of the corporate ladder with increasing frequency.

With all of this in mind, is it really that surprising that American business is in its current state of woe?

In 1969, Dr. Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull wrote “The Peter Principle”. Originally meant to be humorous, clearly, its precepts have become the norm:
The Peter Principle is the principle that "In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence." It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the "salutary science of Hierarchiology", "inadvertently founded" by Peter. It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their "level of incompetence"), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. This principle can be modeled and has theoretical validity.[1] Peter's Corollary states that "in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties" and adds that "work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence".

"The Peter Principle" continues to be an instructional and cautionary work, yet we have failed to recognize its simple wisdom.

In April, 2009, Business Week published an article: The Peter Principle Lives: Now 40, The Peter Principle resonates even more today, when a lust for accomplishment has led an unprecedented level of incompetence.

It states, in part:
The Peter Principle made us laugh, but it also made us aware of the importance of simple competence—and of how elusive it could be. When people do their jobs well, Dr. Peter argued, society can't leave well enough alone. We ask for more and more until we ask too much. Then these individuals—promoted to positions in which they are doomed to fail—start using a bag of tricks to mask their incompetence. They distract us from their crummy work with giant desks, replace action with incomprehensible acronyms, blame others for failure, cheat to create the illusion of progress.
Dr Peter died in 1990, but I must wonder what he would have to say about "multitasking".

I cannot speak for him, but I think it facilitates our rise to "the level of our incompetence".

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