Hidden Pages

Why multi-tasking doesn’t really work


Having so much information available to us and much of it arriving unbidden as interruptions (predominantly via e-mail), we now work in a constant state of multi-tasking.

The current business environment invites distractions, explained Maggie Jackson, author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age." She writes that "Knowledge workers are overloaded because they often work in a noisy, cluttered, harried environment and because they are fragmenting their attention all day long," she said. “Finding time for deep focus is nearly impossible when you’re bouncing from task to task while instant messaging”. 

In the twenty-first century, we take it for granted that our lives will be constantly interrupted by e-mails, instant messages, and mobile phone calls. But new research is showing that the fast-paced, multitasking lifestyle may actually be hampering workers' productivity rather than enhancing it.

Multi-tasking slows you down

The New York Times has an interesting article highlighting some of this research. "Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes," David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan said in an interview with the New York Times

The NYT then showed confirmation of these findings by Microsoft research scientist Eric Horvitz, who found that workers at the software company took an average of 15 minutes to return to the task they were working on after being interrupted by a phone call, e-mail, or instant message. "I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task," Horvitz said.

The problem lies in thinking that human brains work in a similar fashion to a computer. On any typical PC, the operating system can quickly jump back and forth between running tasks by saving any important task information; something modern processors can do in mere nanoseconds.  

The human brain, however, does not context-switch in the same way. We keep an inordinately large amount of information in our heads at one time, but not all of it is quickly accessible. The more complicated the task being performed, the more information has been moved into immediate storage, but this requires an intense concentration that can be easily broken. 

Multi-tasking deludes you into thinking you're being effective

Multi-tasking can give us the illusion that we are very productive and smart. But since we can truly only focus on one thing at a time, multitasking forces us to do extra processing due to the cost of ‘context switching’ (the time it takes to switch our minds when we move from one task to another).  

Author Maggie Jackson warns that the cumulative effect of new technologies is that we may be losing our ability to maintain attention more generally. Attention requires focus, awareness and what she calls executive attention. "Relying on multitasking as a way of life, we chop up our opportunities and abilities to make big-picture sense of the world and pursue our long-term goals," she writes. "The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress."  

Ms. Jackson concludes that "as we plunge into a new world of infinitely connectible and accessible information, we risk losing our means and ability to go beneath the surface, to think deeply." 

Bill McKibben, the great environmentalist said “I feel that much of my life is ebbing away in the tide of minute-by-minute distraction . . . I’m not certain what the effect on the world will be. But psychologists do say that intense close engagement with things does provide the most human satisfaction.” McKibben describes himself as “loving novelty” and yet “craving depth”, which is our contemporary predicament in a nutshell. 

Read more – The Myth of Multi-tasking


All the best!

Steuart Snooks