The myth about multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is bad, this is my opinion.

Nevertheless, "bild der wissenschaft" published a nice article about multi-tasking titled "The myth of multi-tasking" in May 2008 with some interesting and surprising findings ( and I added a few of my own additions here ):

  • The term multi-tasking comes from computer science and describes how an operating system performs "multi-tasking" by actually switching quickly between tasks to make it look like it would perform these tasks simultaneously.
  • Our brain can sense multiple sources simultaneously but can act only on one task at a time. Thus multi-tasking of a brain works the same way as in a computer operating system: through frequent switching. Switching creates extra effort, that’s why I hold to my opinion: multi-tasking is bad. At the end activities take longer and much non-value-add time had to be invested to simply swap thoughts in and our from active parts of your brain. And this swapping is a source of many errors.
  • When doing multi-tasking the productivity of our brain is decreased by around 40 %.
    "MULTITASKING" by akbar Simonse from Den Haag, The Netherlands
  • It is not scientifically proven that women are better in multi-tasking than men, even 80% of people asked during a survey would think so and some studies seems to indicate this. It is as strenuous for women as it is for men. Keeping multiple items under control like the three kids in the living room, the pot with soup on the stove and the phone call with a friend is simply a matter of training, men could learn that as well. As long as the kids and the pot are fine and don’t require any action the situation is under control, but as soon as the woman or man would have to act on multiple events multi-tasking would be required for the price of reduced productivity and stress. The best example I always like to mention: watch people trying to drive a car and having a phone call at the same time and you know what is meant here.
  • There are people who actually like that frequent switching and short periods of time to focus on one activity. These are typically people who can not focus on one thing for a longer period of time.
  • Companies should try everything to avoid multi-tasking for their work force. This would reduce the rate of errors, stress and the risk of employees to become sick ( of that or because of that ).
  • One hint here: check your e-mails only every two hours.
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8 Responses to “The myth about multi-tasking”

  1. Transcontinental Says:

    Interesting, though I believe stress is related to ability ; I mean, a “Gemini” profile is inclined to see much and dig little, while a “Scorpio” profile would be the opposite, for instance. Perhaps true stress is trying to combine a wide scan of interests with a deep inquisition for each of them.

  2. totaltransformation Says:

    Amen. For most folks multi-tasking is not a good thing.

  3. empressofdrac Says:

    I’m guilty of multi-tasking…tsk…tsk…

    but i guess this is what most people are doing nowadays…

    anyways, you’re definitely right…it can lessens ones task quality…

  4. amagard Says:

    Thanks for commenting, folks !
    I think stress is not so much about how much work you have to do rather then whether you have to do something you don’t like to do. I am not sure how Henry Ford fits in here. He is seen as the father of mass production, but I am not sure how this is related to multi-tasking.
    I agree, folks: multi-tasking is not a good thing for many people, but there are people who simply like to work like this. For them it would be probably more stress if they would be forced to do one thing after the other 😉

  5. magiluke Says:

    Henry Ford came up with the idea of the assembly line. In an assembly line, each station has a specialized task that performed over an over again. This specialization is practically the opposite of multitasking, where you have to worry about many different things at once.

    Also, if you look at the beginning of civilization, humans weren’t able to develop as a civilization until they stopped their “multitasking” (hunting, gathering, building their own tools and shelter, etc) and specialized in something. This specialization allowed them to focus on one thing, and become good at it. Then concepts such as trade developed, and allowed civilization to flourish.

    Effectively, I was agreeing with what you said. Only I did it with a terse link.

  6. amagard Says:

    magiluke, thanks for clarifying. If we can view Henry Ford as the father of simple, specialized tasks, whom can be view as the inventor of multi-tasking ?
    To some extent companies nowadays are giving up on this economic principle of specialication – not necessarily in manufacturing. But in the office for example in former times we have had secretaries to write letters. Thanks to e-mail today everyone has to type his letters on his own and secretaries are almost gone. We book our trips, our conference rooms and do thousand other things somebody else was taking care of in the past.
    Jobs become more and more complex. As a software developer one also has to do design and testing and finally write user documentation and even may have to give support and sell his software. It depends on the way a firm is organized, but since savings achieved trough reducing number of people can be calculated easier than finding out the true cost of multi-tasking this is a trend I observe in these days.

  7. Lessons Learned: Players change too often « Axel’s Travelog Says:

    […] also leads to the necessity of "multi-tasking" for all of us, a topic I wrote about here some time ago and from which I believe it reduces our productivity as well. There is almost no way today to build […]


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