The Multitasking Myth

In opinion on January 29, 2008 by karan

The interwebbers are abuzz over an article titled “The Autumn of Multitaskers“, a wandering study and story of multitasking and its many and varied pitfalls, chief among which is the argument that multitasking is a productivity illusion. It allows you to look busy, but really you end up doing both things half-arsed. Bloggers of the world nod along in agreement, hailing it as a revelation while reading it on their iPhones, listening to the latest Arctic Monkeys on the commute in to work (while another tab loads up in the background).

The main point made in the article is that multitasking requires the brain to chop and change between tasks frequently, forcing it to move from a deep-involvement to shallow-involvement, and the penalty of multitasking is a drain on productivity, reportedly costing $650 billion a year in America in lost value

For the most part, I would agree with the point of the article, but there are two things that I would take to task about this.

The first is that this is somehow news. Breaking: doing many things at the same time means not everything is done perfectly! The author’s primary example is when he used a phone in his car, and nearly ended up killing himself. Can you say ‘duh’? Other examples are cited, though some, such as Enron’s ability to appear to be a successful trading company while really being a shonky outfit, is dubiously connected to multitasking.

The ‘revelation’ part of this article should be the part of the scientific study that suggests the hormonal shift of chemicals could be damaging in the longer run (it shouldn’t surprise that hormones shift), and the effect this particularly has on kids. Little column inches are dedicated to this, though to be fair it would make for dry reading.

The second is the excuse that the metaphor of brain-as-computer is somehow part of the cause of multitasking, as though computer multitasking has translated into expectations of human multitasking. This is part of the point that many are picking up on around the net, suggesting that somewhere we went overboard with the ability of computers to multitask, and that’s now harming us.

The reality is, as any credible 3rd year computer science student should be able to tell you, computers don’t multitask any better than we do. Until the recent popularisation of dual-core and multi-CPU machines, computers by and large had one CPU, one ‘brain’. Multitasking was an illusion provided by the operating system, where it did exactly what our brains do – puts down the current bit of work, picks up the next bit of work, and works on it, the loop repeating ad infinitum.

The metaphor of brain-as-CPU is a poor one because we can’t do the mathematical calculations as quickly. However, it is an appropriate one when it comes to multitasking, because computers do exactly the same thing. (One might suggest something about ‘in our own image’, if one was so inclined.) The argument that somehow we model our concept and use of our own brains through the metaphors of things we have made (with our brains), and thus computers are to blame for the multitasking world we find ourselves in is a fallacy, if simply because it is a tautology – we think our brains work as computers because we modelled computers on our brains.

Some in the blogging world have taken this as a revelation, and the enlightenment suggests why people maximise program windows (to see more? no, to focus more, obviously!), and the success of the full-screen writing apps recently. I would contend that you’re conflating one issue (multitasking vs single task focus) with other issues entirely (reduction of distraction temptations, more screen real estate). Computers have not foisted multitasking upon humanity, they have merely enabled it to run away from our limited abilities to keep up.

I do not argue that multitasking does not reduce competence, but I do argue with the attempt to blame it on our devices. We’re at fault, and our devices are enablers. We’ve worked out how to put multiple brains in computers to improve multitasking, but we’ve yet to get to that point in humans – until then, multitasking remains a high-investment low-return activity.


3 Responses to “The Multitasking Myth”

  1. hey karan, interesting article & post! I guess I haven’t thought too much about multitasking in this kind of light… but now that I think about it, I’m always feeling pressured to do it – because everyone else is. It’s the nagging feeling of falling behind in today’s world if I can’t hold a job, do research, be in a club, have a real social life and stay in touch with my family while staying on top of my school work and preparing to apply to the next level of educational institution. I guess the same goes for everyone: trying to “maximize” our time to supposedly get more done… or maybe it’s LA. I really don’t like this city sometimes.

  2. Yeah, true, there’s always the pressure of keeping up with society and its endless drive to do more with less. Which is why holidays, where you’re focused on doing one thing at a time, are so good :)

  3. I think some routine tasks can be done effectively while multitasking, but problems arise when you have to divide you attention among several tasks. This may sound contradictive, but allow me to explain.

    When you first learn to ride a bicycle, you initially focus on keeping you balance, pedalling, braking and steering. Eventually these tasks become “programmed” reflexes in a certain part of the brain, and you now longer have to think about them until they don’t work as expected. At that point you can direct your attention on picking the best route, avoiding traffic and other obstacles and when to shift gears. all the basic operation stuff is done subconciously.

    I’ve known some secretaries who could accurately transcribe written notes at 80 wpm while talking on the phone. In their cases the transcription process was being done subconciously. After typing the document, they would have to read it to find out what they had typed.

    This is possible because the brain, unlike a cpu works in a massively parallel asychronous mode. with different parts of the brain actually automating routine, and mostly somatic processes.

    But when faced with multiple cognitive tasks, it takes time for the brain to change context, and there is where the problems arise. Consider drivinf and texting, posibbly the stupidest form of multasking. Both tasks (driving and texting) require you to focus your attention to recognize and respond to consantly changing conditions. Failure to respond in a timely manner to changes in driving conditions can get someone killed. Failure to timely answer you phone might get someone upset with you.

    Personally, I think having a misunderstanding a bit less serious than a possible one-way trip in a body-bag, so when my cell rings and I’m driving, I simply pull off in a parkinglot and check my caller id and voice mail.

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