Archive for September, 2012

The Miracle of Multitasking

Musings | Posted by Doc
Sep 19 2012

What? You thought I was going to say something good about multitasking?


I’ve done some training and coaching at several organizations recently. In every case they voiced the same complaint: we are expected to work on more than one project at a time, sometimes as many as four or five.

This baffles me.

First, because there is no such thing as “multitasking”. What there is is serial tasking. That is, our brains can only focus on one thing at a time, so when we are “multitasking”, we are really just switching from one thing to another in – sometimes – short time spans.

All of the research that I’ve been able to find says the same thing: (1) there is no such thing as multitasking, (2) whatever you call it, it doesn’t work, and (3) when you try to do it, it ends up taking longer to finish everything. This article, for instance, says it loud and clear:

As technology allows people to do more tasks at the same time, the myth that we can multitask has never been stronger. But researchers say it’s still a myth — and they have the data to prove it.

Humans, they say, don’t do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly.


Studies show that we frequently overestimate our ability to handle multiple tasks.

For early humans, that sort of miscalculation could have meant becoming a tiger’s lunch. These days, the consequences are more likely to be stress, a blunder — or maybe a car crash.

Other research says much the same thing. I love this one:

Workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers, new research has claimed.

The study for computing firm Hewlett Packard warned of a rise in “infomania”, with people becoming addicted to email and text messages.

which I found in this one:

Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves, thinking we’re getting more done. In reality, our productivity goes down by as much as 40%. We don’t actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process.

I could easily go on and on, because there’s no shortage of this kind of information.

We don’t multitask, we do fast task switching. And it just doesn’t work.

It’s clear that we human beings are far more effective and efficient when we work on one thing at a time, complete that one thing (or reach some reasonable stopping point) and then move on to something else.

So why oh why do organizations keep time-sharing their people? It seems to hit UX people a lot, as well as designers and BAs. But it’s not exclusive to them by any means.

Somehow, there seems to be this myth that (a) there’s not enough work on any one project to keep these folks busy and (b) we get more productivity out of them if we have them work on multiple things and (c) everything will get done at least as soon this way.

It just doesn’t work that way.

If we have people working on multiple tasks/projects, everything they’re working on will take longer.

Simple math: if it takes as little as 20% extra per additional task, then working on two things takes not 200% but 220% of the time (assuming the tasks are of equal size). Three tasks means 340%, and so on. Twenty percent is a modest number, based on the research (see the note about 40% above). Given this, it means that working on two three month projects at the same time takes not six months, but 7.2 months. And working on three three-month projects at the same time takes not nine months, but 12.6 months.

How is that in any way rational?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to get the first project done in three months, the second one done at the six month mark (instead of the 7.2 month mark or later) and the third one done at the nine month mark (instead of ALL OF THEM being done at the 12.6 month mark)?

This baffles me.

Seemingly reasonable, rational human beings make unreasonable, irrational decisions all the time. This one is so prevalent that I expect that I’m missing something in the psychology of the decision-makers.

Even if I’m missing something, I won’t stop preaching and arguing against multitasking. Give me the single path every time, not the drunken snail path!

Taking responsibility

Musings | Posted by Doc
Sep 11 2012

This morning I was at the gym (as is frequently the case). In the time I’ve been going to this particular Gold’s Gym (since it opened 5 or 6 years ago), I’ve never seen someone injured or have any kind of problem that required immediate care. Sure some of us bang ourselves, strain muscles, and otherwise create our own events. But I’ve never seen something that I would consider an emergency.

Until today.

I went to use a piece of equipment. As I was walking over, I saw a man lying on the floor, and a staff member standing over him. My first thought was that a trainer was working with this fellow and having him do something. My next thought was still that it was a trainer, but that he was allowing his client to rest. It was an odd place for either, since it was along the path to the men’s locker room.

Then I realized that the man standing was not a trainer, but a member of the housekeeping staff. And a moment later, the receptionist came up with the phone to her ear. And I realized that the man on the floor was older, somewhat heavy, resting his upper body on a jacket or shirt (his upper body was bare), and while he was breathing, he was not moving around.

These two staff members stood over the man, one talking on the phone, the other talking to/at the man on the floor.

Now, I have to admit that I did not jump in. I saw two people there, and allowed myself to believe that they had things under control.

One of the trainers came up at the same time as one of my gym buddies. I say “gym buddy” because we’ve shaken hands, exchanged a few words now and then, smile at each other consistently, and without knowing him at all I like him. I didn’t know his name, I don’t know what he does for a living or his hobbies or anything else. I just know that I interpret him as likable and a good guy, based on my experience of his behavior.

This guy (whom I now know to be named David) came up, squatted down to the level of the man on the floor, leaned in and started speaking with him. He reached out and touched the man on the floor. He took the man’s towel, on which he was partially lying, and wiped the man’s face and head.

I realized at that moment that David didn’t think about who was already there, or whether they were taking appropriate or necessary action. He did what was clearly natural to him, and very appropriate to the situation.

Having been in a situation similar to that man on the floor, I can tell you how important it is to have someone down at the same level, touching me, comforting me, and seeming to be completely focused on me.

That’s what David did.

I walked up to David and ask “What type of service are you in or were you in?”

“Why do you ask?” he asked.

“I saw you get down to that man’s level, talk gently to him, and touch him, and that was a wonderful thing to do. I wondered if it was part of what you do or used to do.”

David paused, gave me a little smile, and said “No, I’m not in any service.”

David has my respect and admiration. David did what was needed in a very personal, human, sensitive way. He made contact with the man on the floor, treating him as a human being, not a problem to be dealt with.

To be fair, the staff members were not being rude or distant or harsh. The trainer who had come up around the same time as David had also squatted down. But it was David who – seemingly without any consideration or deliberation – immediately did what he apparently saw as appropriate.

Of course, I asked David’s name, which – duh – I now know to be David. I don’t know his last name. I still don’t know what he does for a living or his hobbies or his family situation or anything else.

I do know that I would do anything in my power for David.

David, if you’re reading this – I wasn’t kidding. Ask me for anything.

Responsibility. Humanity. Caring. Presence. Giving.


P.S. The fire emergency team arrived – an engine and an emergency vehicle. They immediately took over. I spoke with David, then we all pretty much went back to what we’d been doing. Well, except David. After the EMTs took the man out, I saw David go back to where they’d been, and come back out carrying the man’s possessions. You rock, David!

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