On Multitasking

On Multitasking by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by strandemike, Available at www.flickr.com

Why do we act as though multitasking is a badge of honor? Why do we brag about being able to do two things at the same time? Common sense says that dividing attention between two (or more) simultaneous tasks leads to reduced performance and costly mistakes. Plus, if we’re not willing to heed common sense, there is plenty of research measuring the foolishness of multitasking. So why do we gleefully continue this behavior and applaud one another’s poor choices?

There are actually two types of behavior that get lumped under the label of multitasking: parallel processing and task switching. They are distinct behaviors, but equally foolhardy.

Parallel processing is doing two things at exactly the same time. For example, you might be reading a report while also listening to a conference call. In a study of the effects of parallel processing, one group of students used laptops computers during a lecture while another group was told to close their laptops during that lecture. Students engaged in parallel processing (laptops open and in use during the lecture) scored significantly lower on a test of knowledge from the lecture.1 Those engaged in parallel processing realized reduced performance.

The other type of behavior, called task switching, is rapidly moving between two or more tasks, for example, reading a report and responding to instant messages and email as they arrive. The challenge in task switching is repeated and frequent re-orienting of focus on dissimilar and often unrelated tasks. Observation of my own and others’ behavior suggests that we actually engage in more task switching than we do parallel processing, but I have not seen any data to confirm this.

In a study measuring the effects of task switching, the results were quite dramatic. Three groups of students were given a reading assignment. One group simply read the material. A second group responded to a batch of instant messages, then did the reading. The third group responded to the instant messages while completing the reading. The latter group required approximately 50% more time to complete the reading compared to all of the other students.2 The process of refocusing brain function on various tasks produced significantly reduced performance. What should grab your attention is that the way most of us do our daily work is most similar to that last group of students.

While I’m railing on the foolishness of multitasking, I confess I am often guilty, but trying to improve. There are times when I have had my favorite Internet radio station playing, while the news is on TV (muted), at the same time I am processing email (and responding to the occasional instant message). Guilty as charged!

To reduce my multitasking behavior, I am doing a number of things. Some of them include the following: I get my news fix at the top of the hour a few times a day. I leave open programs and browser windows related to the task I am working on. I create 45-50 minute blocks of time to concentrate on specific projects.

What I still find amazing is that some act as though multitasking is a good thing; they describe it as an efficient use of time. Some brag about the multiple, difficult activities they do simultaneously. Why? What societal “pill” did we take that convinced so many that multitasking is a good thing?

Am I crazy? Can you make a case in support of multitasking? Prove me wrong.

1: Hembrooke, Helene and Geri Gay. “The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments.” Journal of Computing in Higher Education 15, no. 1 (2003): 46-64.
2: Viadero, Debra. Instant Messaging found to Slow Students’ Reading. 2008. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/08/27/01im.h28.html

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