The Myth of Multitasking

By Craig Buckler
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multi-taskingI’m old enough to remember the days when computers ran one application at a time. You opened Lotus 1-2-3, worked on a file, closed it and moved to the next task. It was a simpler time without distractions. Compare that with what you’re doing today. Are you reading this while working on a PHP application, fiddling with a graphic in PhotoShop, opening 57 browser tabs, listening to the latest SitePoint podcast, answering the phone, monitoring your twitter stream, and keeping an eye on email notifications? Technology has allowed us to multitask and achieve more at the same time.

Or has it?

According to a recent study at Stanford University, media multitaskers have more limited attention spans and cannot switch jobs as easily as those who prefer to work on one task at a time.

A series of tests were given to a group of 100 students who had been identified as single and multi-taskers. The single-taskers consistently out-performed the multi-taskers every time. Researcher Anthony Wagner stated:

When multitaskers are 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. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.

The scientists had assumed the human brain could process more than one stream of information at a time. They had originally theorized that multitaskers had a special innate gift that allowed them to handle multiple tasks better than others. Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead author, added:

We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.

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

Researcher Professor Clifford Nass concluded:

Multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.

Could it be that doing less actually allows you to accomplish more? Can you multi-task effectively?

Photo credit: Georgia Wiggs

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  • cb

    Can you multi-task effectively?

    Yes and no. As defined by the researchers — interrupting one task in progress for another — definitely not, and I agree with the researchers’ premise that the net productive output of this “multi-tasking” is lower than well-organized serial-tasking.

    On the other hand, there’s another type of multi-tasking at which I excel. It’s the organization and management of tasks so that I can work on something else while another task is at a point where I must wait for some external event to complete. To describe two simplistic examples, for instance, if I’m stuck on hold on a phone call, I’ll answer email. I don’t just stand and look at the coffee pot while it brews, I do something else in the meantime. There are plenty of real-world examples where this is possible and benneficial.

    This form of multi-tasking (and it is multitasking) — working on a new task, while other tasks are suspended by some outside circumstance — handled well, can tremendously add to productivity.

    Interrupting myself to pretend I can switch back/forth from one thing to another and have a net productivity gain? Heck no. I don’t even try. The “do-not-disturb” button and similar tools are my best friends.

  • bar338

    distractions occur throughout the day and I often label them as multitasking, but deep down i know its just a distraction.

  • Pam

    Excellent article, and something our company follows. Although it causes us to have to turn down clients, we have taken the stance of focusing on one major project at a time. It gives MUCH better results, especially since everything we do is ground-up custom design and custom programming.

  • rungss

    multi-tasking has indeed been taking a toll on me for long…

    I can’t let go of it completely but I hope I will be able to Organize myself better..

    still looking at ways to achieve that…

    Bijay Rungta aka @rungss on Twitter..

  • php_penguin

    This isn’t new (I read an article in New Scientist about 18 months ago on this very topic) and it’s important to mention (although no-one will ever believe you) that there is no difference at all across genders – both men and women absolutely suck at multitasking.

  • tsega

    Man my girl always tells me about this “one task at a time”. She always gets confused with the multiple tabs on my browser, but it is true she gets things done, she is a single-tasker. I get distracted easily even while reading a book and I really can’t concentrate unless it’s early in the morning. I guess I’m one of the numbers.

    I would really love to change my habit. I want to get things done!

  • Arrrms

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. I hate when I’m working on one project and all of a sudden I need to make a change to another. This breaks my chain of thought. I would analogize it as having to rev up your motor before you reach peak efficiency. If you have to turn off one motor just to start another, by the time you get back to the first one, you’ve already lost efficiency, and it takes time to hit your peak again.

  • @cb, David Allen of Getting Things Done fame would say that isn’t multi-tasking, it’s rapid task-switching. The latter is a necessary skill in today’s world, the former (which is what is truly referenced in this blog post) is a hindrance.

  • ravi_k47

    i disagree, there’s more things to basically depends on the goal.
    if you are trying to reach 3-4 goals at a time, neither of them would look good. If you have to work on 3-4 tools to get a single job done, its another case. I agree with yogler on this. completely different scenario.

  • Sheldon (Marketing Consultant, Tauranga)

    It’s like you were looking over my shoulder and watching what I was doing on my computer screen!

  • Kawazoe Masahiro

    for the record, multi-tasking isn’t only done on computers. Oddly enough, it’s principally done in school when you have more than one class per week (aka: math, english, chemistry, etc.). This is multi tasking too! Which mean that we would probably finish school faster if we where seeing only one class per year.

  • Bob42

    I agree with Arrrms completely. I tend to focus intently especially on programming and documentation tasks and get upset when distracted. Admittedly I have tried to listen to podcasts while doing mundane administrative tasks that are repetitive in nature. But I have found that while I completed the admin tasks I did not get much out of the podcast.

  • Georgia Wiggs

    Thanks for using my photo!
    Interesting article

  • Thinking about how computers deal with things like the multiple applications described in the post is instructive. Most computers even multiple core devices work by interrupts and task switching fast enough to make one think they are really doing multiple tasks. They save enough information each switch to get back to work on the switched task. Humans don’t have such efficient stacks and switching skills. Each time we switch we lose focus and have to spend time to get back to work on alternate tasks. I think this is why “multitaskers” who invite interrupts are worse off.

  • Resq32

    My issue with “human multitasking” is that it isn’t multitasking at all. We are serial-taskers that can slice our time and switch back and forth between tasks. This works fine in the email/ phone hold scenario, but almost never works well with larger complex tasks. It can take up to 45 minutes to get back up to speed on a project once we’ve been retasked. That can, and does, lead to longer work time for each task.
    As for the multiple course example, they are discrete tasks that we manage our timeslices for. They are not done in a concurrent manner, but rather a serial one.

  • Marta

    I am very interested in researchs about the effects the “multitask” work causes in our minds. I have notice that since I work in continous “multitask” way, I am becoming less able to spend a long time concentrated in just one thing. Its like being a little “hyperactive”. I miss the time I was able to study one subject for hours (in my students years). In my proffesional years I am good in solving problems in a short time, but each year I am less able to spend a lot of time thinking or solving just one thing. Perhaps that’s an evidence of multitask-effects.