Want To Watch Friends At Work? The Truth About Concentrating While Multitasking

Photo: Alice S. Hall/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images.
When I heard that Robert De Niro’s company sued a former employee for $6 million dollars for spending an “astronomical" amount of time” watching Netflix at work (and embezzling money), I was intrigued. When I learned that said employee allegedly binge watched 55 episodes of Friends in four days while on the job, I had a few questions:

1. That sounds like something Joey would do. Which Friends character does this employee most identify with?

2. Can this woman please give me a recommendation for a computer monitor privacy screen protector!?
3. It sounds like the rain has most certainly started to pour for this woman. Who will be there for her.
4. What season did she end on?
5. Is it possible to concentrate on your work and watch TV at the same time?
I may never know the answer to most of these questions, but luckily there are experts out there who can answer the last one. Shalena Srna, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Michigan who co-authored a study about multitasking, says the answer is no.
“People actually can't multitask for non-automatic tasks or tasks that require attention, like working and watching TV,” Srna says. “When we say we are multitasking, we are actually switching our attention back and forth between different tasks. This switching is costly to performance for a number of reasons.”
She explains that our brains have a limited cognitive capacity. So, when we try to multitask there’s virtually a bottleneck in the prefrontal cortex that only allows one thought through at a time. We can quickly switch between the two thoughts, but we can’t process them simultaneously. c
It’s easier to “multitask” when we’re doing simple tasks like listening to music or doing the dishes, because those require less cognitive attention, Srna explains. But if you’re trying to do math while Chandler’s cracking a joke, your brain is going to have a hard time switching between those two very different ideas.
There is one point in favor of multitasking. Although it’s true that multitasking can hurt your performance, Srna’s research found that people who think of an activity as multitasking are more engaged and consequently can outperform those who think of the same activity as “single tasking.”
"Multitasking can often be a matter of perception,” Srna says. “If I’m at work and am switching between different tabs on my computer, perceiving this activity as multitasking will enhance my engagement and performance compared to if I perceived this activity as doing a single task. That being said, if you have the opportunity to do less, that is best for your performance. However, in today's society, we often have to engage in multiple tasks, and perceiving your activity as multitasking could help.” 
And so: Since no one else will, I'm coming to the defense of this allegedly rogue employee. Maybe making Excel spreadsheets while watching Ross and Rachel fall in and out of love made her feel engaged — like she could take on the world. Or, maybe, this was all just a misunderstanding of "we were on a break" proportions.

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