Leadership

The lie of multitasking

The ability to perform multiple activities at once is usually regarded as an asset. Recent research may prove that wrong.

For most of my career, multitasking, the ability to perform multiple activities at once, has been regarded as an asset. Managers have encouraged their staff to multitask, and IT leaders frequently speak of employees who are effective multitaskers in a positive light.

However, recent research into how the brain functions suggests that multitasking isn’t the asset we once thought, and that those long-admired employees and peers are more likely better at focusing and shifting on single tasks, rather than possessing some super-human ability to simultaneously perform multiple tasks. Previously, the brain was regarded much like the processor in our computers and phones. You could allocate a percentage of the processor’s overall capacity to a task, and the task would be completed commensurate with the allocation it received. If a particular task took one minute using 100% of the processor, you could do two similar tasks in two minutes, since each would receive 50% of the computing capacity.

Multitasking in the field

Unlike our computers, the human brain’s capacity to process degrades significantly the more tasks it’s trying to manage. Rather than a 50% reduction in performance when trying to do two similar tasks at once, the reduction tends to be more in the area of 80-95%.

For a ready example of how ineffective we are at multitasking, do some “field research” during your next conference call. Even a task as banal as triaging email or playing Solitaire significantly degrades one’s ability to follow the conversation, and is far more likely to be the source of “I’m sorry, could you repeat that” than is some technical problem with the telephone connection.

So, what’s going on with multitasking mavens?

While the research clearly indicates the human brain struggles to perform multiple tasks at once, most of us have met people who have a seemingly inhuman ability to perform several distinct activities under pressure. However, if you study these people, they tend to gather a collection of tasks, sequence them logically, and then focus with laser-like intensity on a single activity. These are the people who are not fondling their smartphones in meetings or stopping to open their email application every time the new email beep occurs. Rather than performing several activities at once, they’re able to focus on a single activity, then rapidly shift to the next activity.

Practical multitasking

To apply these lessons to your own organization, stop trying to foster some inhuman ability to simultaneously perform multiple tasks. At best, this is frustrating and results in poor performance, and at worst, costs your organization significantly in terms of lost productivity and inferior output. A critical component of managing multiple tasks is gathering and prioritizing each, so work to develop your task management and tracking capabilities. This might be a well-defined system and set of tools, or merely sitting for a few moments and gathering your thoughts before jumping to the next email or beeping device.

Finally, work on applying 100% of your focus to the task at hand. For example, the quality and speed of my writing increased significantly when I disabled all the notifications on my workstation, so I could write an article unmolested by tweets, emails, likes, and other distractions. Even in conversations, you’ll find the other party responding with more excitement and engagement when you devote 100% of your mental energy to the conversation and the speaker.

With these easily applied techniques, you can become far more efficient at managing multiple tasks and using the human mind to its most effective capacity. While this may seem subtly nuanced from the old idea of multitasking, try these techniques for a day or two and you’ll notice a world of difference.



About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

27 comments
crbala
crbala

Completely agree. Distractions are a big source of loss of focus. Distractions can occur due to colleagues or your own digital sources like facebook, email, messaging, phone calls etc. There are tools available like Prohance which measure and present your distraction score. Helps you modify your work style and become more focused and hence more efficient.

aucortezano
aucortezano

No one can serve two masters at the same time! Time management is the key. ^_^


libwebdev
libwebdev

"recent research into how the brain functions" ... would you like to quote your source please? cheers.

jag022054
jag022054

I've never worked with or for anyone who talked about multitasking as anything other than the ability to switch between tasks quickly. I have certainly been in situations where the amount of tasks to be juggled was not realistic. Of course we are talking about things we are doing consciously, breathing, digesting, and pumping blood don't count. Some things that seem like conscious activity are pretty automatic, walking and chewing gum come to mind.

I guess I've been lucky.

dlovep
dlovep

If you think human cant multitasking, then you're not human. Can you see what you are eating simultaneously breathing air and listen to your wife whining while you are thinking about another sexy woman at the same time. If that's not multitasking, tell me what is multitasking. Beside, you don't seems to require any "Training" on your brain to work like this.


If you know what INTERRUPT in PC stands for then you might re-consider what you wrote.

aprecht
aprecht

This is not new research. I remember reading a article in the 80's about the NASA research done in the 60's, to develop the astronauts check lists. To summarize: Human brains like short single threaded tasks. Short and single threaded, because we feel a scene of reward after we check off a task. It keeps us motivated to continue to the end of our task list.


CesarFStoll
CesarFStoll

Computer multitasking is in the speed of the computer to process extremely fast several instructions. One processor of course. If processor are added then the speed increases. This is a very simplistic representation. 
Humans who tend to think rather quick or who can maintain the focus, can 'multitask' more than other who are not in that universe. 
I think the article is valid when the whole population is represented but hardly can state as an absolute truth that multitasking is in fact a lie, even if the truth is to do with speed and focus. The big risk is on dismissing talent on behalf of what is only statistically a number. 

rht
rht

Interesting piece. Thank you.

wrt "recent research into how the brain functions suggests" would you please let me know where this research was published?

Thanks

bob

RW17
RW17

Multi-tasking has become a talked about subject for one reason only:  because one of the genders was told they were better at it than the other.  When this happens, the one gender who has been "chosen as superior" runs with it like mad!  Any other factors or discoveries are simply ignored in perpetuation of the one gender's advantage.

    All you have to know about multi-tasking and the human mind is play a sport.  When the chips are down, and the ball, puck, or game comes to your hands, stick, or play, and the crowd is cheering, you will hear nothing of that crowd, see nothing else but that moment in front of you, and think of nothing else whatsoever than the proximity of your opponent around you.  The mind, when truly focused, works on one item only.  To multi-task is to not give anything your full attention and, consequently, leave something other than your best having been focused on any particular of those tasks.

bmeyer66
bmeyer66

I still Like my old definition of multitasking from my first time in college- Read/ study my text book while using my TV/ music as back ground noise to block out the noise of the dorm around me.

BFilmFan
BFilmFan

My advice is when someone starts a multi-tasking spiel, is to offer to see if they can perform the task while I shoot a paintball gun at them.

Generally, they sputter and spew about not being a real scenario, when I inform them I am just strolling the same area of Wonderland as they.

I think if a lot of these "experts" got a few more paintballs shot at their head while espousing their goofy ideas, the world would be a better place.

hug.login
hug.login

I call it polling but not multitasking.

dbielaski
dbielaski

I knew it!  I can't wait to get home and tell my wife that my single-task focus is better than her (supposed!) multi-tasking ways.

ericson007
ericson007

Wow... finally someone that agrees. What is considered as multi tasking by many is really not multi tasking but repetitive tasks carried out in the subconscious. Many think they are multi tasking when in fact it is merely utilizing motor memory. It is like being able to talk to a friend while driving. Acceleration takes care of itself. Were many fail is paying attention to traffic conditions while talking to their friends. Simple everyday example of motor memory vs. multi tasking to prevent a fender bender. It just does not work. People should stop confusing multi tasking and motor memory.

Adrian Watts
Adrian Watts

Multitasking is a myth, almost. Everyone sucks at multitasking irrespective of what they say, but as with all things involving humans, some are better than others; or more accurately some are less bad than the rest.

A better term for what most people think of as multitasking is serial switching, everyone can do this. The problem is that the ease with with the brain can switch tasks is inversely proportional to the complexity of the tasks at hand. And the loss of efficiency varies from person to person for a similar switch.

The important thing to note is that whenever we switch tasks there is a loss of efficiency. If the tasks are trivial then the loss of efficiency is trivial and probably not even noticed as it is measured in seconds. Although even a very minor interruption can cause us to lose our train of thought (anyone ever lost count when someone asks us a 2-second question). Just ask a programmer if they like being interrupted when in the middle of a very complex bit of coding, just don't interrupt them or you may lose your head.

As mentioned above if you maximise your ability to concentrate on the task at hand your efficiency will increase. The problem is that most organisations these days make this very difficult to achieve, they want you to be instantly available and on the ball and interfacing with your colleagues. They seem to forget that the best way to get bits of work done is often on your own in a quiet room with no distractions and no disruptions.

RDWII
RDWII

@jag022054,

I have worked with people who would put a lie to your assumption that "Some things that seem like conscious activity are pretty automatic, walking and chewing gum come to mind." ;-)

I am in IT and I have seen situations where developers were expected to "multitask" in precisely the manner you described (i.e. "switch between tasks quickly") . . . in fact it is and has been almost a standard requirement.  In almost every case, the result has been that the several projects wind up being completed more slowly than if they had bee handled sequentially.  Why? Because there is a "Now, what the heck was I doing?" delay in switching to the next task.  In other words, once the developer's focus has been removed from a given task, there will be a certain amount of time required to mentally get back to the point where the task was set aside . . . and the more complex the task, the longer it will take.


Yet, "The Business" still seems to assume that IT can switch from one task to another at a moment's notice without introducing any delays in projects.

Adrian Watts
Adrian Watts

@dlovep Of the four examples you used for multitasking breathing is part of the autonomic nervous system so requires no thinking and eating i.e. chewing and swallowing is part of the somatic nervous system which requires very little thinking. As far as listening to your wife whining while thinking about another sexy woman, that is multitasking, and I bet you can't do both together as effectively as you would if you did them individually.

RDWII
RDWII

@CesarFStoll,

Re: "Computer multitasking is in the speed of the computer to process extremely fast several instructions."

I learned a long time ago that even the fastest computer performs one instruction at a time per CPU.  Having helped develop operating systems and , more significantly, _interrupt_driven_ operating systems, I can assure you that, in order to switch tasks in a computer, the computer will require a certain amount of "overhead" time to, in effect, record where it was and what it was doing on the task being switched _from_ and to then retrieve where it was and what it was doing on the task being switched_to_.  It is the fact that the computer is able to do this so very much quicker than a human can think about it that makes it _seem_ like the computer is multitasking.

So, your argument is not based in reality but, rather, in perception.  Those who seem to have mastered multitasking are much like the computer, they have gotten good at reducing the overhead involved in the switching but they haven't really achieved true multitasking . . . and, if you watch long enough, yu will most likely find that they either take a LOT of notes and then refer to them or they tend to omit the fine details, especially as the number of tasks exceeds 2.


aroc
aroc

@dbielaski Careful there  - that is how the Honey-Do list grows...

Adrian Watts
Adrian Watts

@ericson007 There was a study where they gave subjects simple maths problems and short lists to memorise whilst driving then testing their reaction times to brake for an emergency (all simulated of course). Obviously almost everyone was slower than when they were driving without the extra tasks. The surprising part was that about 1 in 40 did not suffer any impairment.

So for almost everyone distractions whilst driving are bad. For the lucky few do you want to risk it.

RDWII
RDWII

@Adrian Watts,

"Just ask a programmer if they like being interrupted when in the middle of a very complex bit of coding, just don't interrupt them or you may lose your head."

Trying to interrupt the really great developers I've know wouldn't cost you your head but it might put a strain on your patience . . . because they would simply not hear you or notice you.  Being able to focus on the task at hand to the exclusion of other interruptions (often including hunger pangs) is almost an essential ingredient of being a really good developer. ;-)

aroc
aroc

@Adrian Watts How about the buzz the last few years to do away with email, usually replacing it with some variant of Instant Messaging (IM) with various "social" trappings?   This amounts to institutionalizing multitasking.  I typically start my day (when not paged out of hours) in keeping the IM service off while I sort through the email barrage with a triage approach of getting rid of the bulk that is internal junk mail, broadcast distribution lists being the main source (although it can be quite entertaining when once or twice a year someone accidentally uses a really wide-ranging list meant for a few, and folks start replying-all to be removed from the "irrelevant" list, and then more respond with reply-all not to reply-all, and on it goes - thank goodness for email filtering!).  Then I work on replying to those specific to me, and filing others for reference - urgent, important, and specific does get my attention first of course.  Then I start the IM service, and will block it as needed through the day.  Email is still a great resource to keep communications from multitasking one to distraction, if managed properly.

A corresponding trend is open workplaces that add on the direct physical distractions of people "in your space".  The party line typically used to justify it is all the wonderful collaboration opportunities that it fosters (although the real reason that seems to be lurking in the background is cutting costs on office space along with a control freak mentality to prevent "slacking").  I had thought all along (coming to a workplace "near" me soon) it was a mindless embodiment of extroverts running amok, but maybe it is just a more conventional manifestation of the multitasking mantra.   At least in our situation there is provision for quiet rooms and meeting rooms to isolate or group noise as appropriate (as long as there enough such rooms to go around...).

RDWII
RDWII

@Adrian Watts @dlovep ,

With regard to listening to your wife and thinkingabout another woman, I can assure you that you cannot do that as SAFELY as you can do either of them individually.  In fact, _having_ a wife and thinking about another woman is inherently unsafe in the first place. ;-)

RDWII
RDWII

@aroc @dbielaski ,

That's also how the sofa/garage/dog ouse gets more crowded at night. ;-)

One of the wisest bits of advise I have gotten was when I was cautioned by a friend that, "There are 2 ways to argue with a woman . . . and neither of them work."

Adrian Watts
Adrian Watts

@aroc @Adrian Watts Unless your job is to respond to emails and IMs then the recommended method to maximise email efficiency is to only open it a few times a day e.g first thing, mid-morning, before and after lunch, mid-afternoon and end of day (and turn IM off before you start anything that will take more than a few minutes.)

Open plan offices are a problem for anyone trying to think. The human brain is hard-wired to listen to voices so the instant anyone starts up a conversation (even if it is a person on the radio starting to talk) you brain pays attention and your focus gets split which reduces your ability or even stops you in your current task. And it doesn't matter how quiet the conversation is, that just makes your brain try harder to piece together what is being said.

The reason music doesn't interfere is because it stimulates a different part of the brain than the speech centre(s). Some places are starting to install white-noise generators which acts the same way music does and covers up extraneous talking.

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