The Miracle of Multitasking

Posted by Doc
Sep 19 2012

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

Nope.

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.

and

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!

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