Friday, 25 September 2009

just say no to multitasking

I recall a conversation between A, the director of the institute where I used to work many years ago, and D, a senior scientist in the same institute who was talking about his research. It was going like this:
D: “We did this and this.”
A: “Excellent.”
D: “We also did this and that.”
A: “Very good.”
D: “And last month we started the experiment on...”
A: “Good, but don’t you think you spread too thinly?”
D: “Well, no, I have a very talented PhD student, who also...”
A: “Wait, wait, let’s concentrate on the first thing for now. What was it, again?”
D: “It was this. While I was looking at the results of this compared with results of that, I thought I also should...”
A: “Oh, shut up. You can’t do everything at once.”
A bit too direct, perhaps, but that’s why A was a director. He did understand that multitasking is not always good for research; or maybe, never good for research. On the contrary, D thought that the more things you do simultaneously, the better. According to the excellent article by Christine Rosen,
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, one sensed a kind of exuberance about the possibilities of multitasking. Advertisements for new electronic gadgets — particularly the first generation of handheld digital devices — celebrated the notion of using technology to accomplish several things at once. The word multitasking began appearing in the “skills” sections of résumés, as office workers restyled themselves as high-tech, high-performing team players.
Are multitaskers any better than, er, monotaskers? The recent study conducted by Stanford scientists shows that no, not really.
“We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.”
What a relief for people like me, low-throughput monotaskers. But is this “skill” as valuable now as it was ten years? You bet. Check it out: today’s search for multitask in Nature brings 23 hits, while New Scientist has 82 jobs featuring this keyword! (Charmingly, this latter resource adds that “the most relevant jobs are listed first”.)
A high level of multitasking ability over several projects is expected.
Must be adaptable to changing work requirements, and be willing to multitask.
Self-motivated, ability to multitask, and willingness to work in a start-up environment.
Strong communication (verbal and written), organizational and multitasking skills are essential.
And this is not just directors and managers, the people who you’d expect to be no good at anything. These “competencies” are expected from post-docs too. I can’t help thinking that it is nothing but greedy employers trying to get many for the price of one. Good luck to them.

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