Is The Inefficiency Of Multitasking A Bug Or A Feature?

from the questions-to-ponder... dept

There have been a bunch of studies recently claiming that multi-tasking and our constant use of technology harms our ability to concentrate or accomplish certain tasks. A recent example is a study claiming that so much tech usage is harming our ability to learn because kids can’t focus as much on long form work. Of course, I’m a bit skeptical of any such claims (almost all anecdotal) considering that actual studies have shown that kids read more books today than in the past. And, it’s not just kids. More people are reading books than in the past in the general population as well.

Still, there’s another argument to be made also, which reader JJ recently pointed out. Stowe Boyd notes that all of these types of studies miss the point, in that personal efficiency may be less important than being more interactive:

Perhaps what we are doing has nothing to do with efficiency. I don’t operate the way I do with the principal goal of speeding things up. My motivations are much more complex and diffused.

I don’t perceive what I am doing as multitasking, really. I am not trying to speed up how quickly I shift from one thing to another. Instead, I am involved in a stream of activities, in which other people figure prominently, either synchronously through direct discussion (a la Twitter or IM) or indirectly, through their writings and my responses.

In many cases, I leave activities dangling because I don’t know exactly how I feel about them. In some cases, I could resolve my feelings and take some action if I simply stopped other activities and focused solely on that activity, but in most cases that is not the case. And simply forcing myself to focus on the next thing in the activity would not lead to an acceptable or beneficial result, necessarily.

It’s like a painter with a number of works in process. My primary motivation is not getting a particular painting ‘done’, but adding dabs of paint that I feel are the right ones.

I honestly had never thought of it this way, and I’ll admit I’m not sure how I feel on this. But it is an interesting way of looking at such things. Obviously, in a work setting, personal productivity may matter. But, in general — just doing stuff online — is it a problem that we multitask? Or is that a feature?

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Comments on “Is The Inefficiency Of Multitasking A Bug Or A Feature?”

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JPirate says:

It’s a feature, if it’s not a bug. For every individual there is a line of too much. And I’m not talking about some ridiculous ‘online addiction’, just the basic measure of: “is it harming you unnecessarily? someone else?”. If not, then it’s a feature. If it’s costing your health, friendships, or relationships unduly then it’s a bug.

That said, I think it’s a feature. Sometimes it’s just relaxing and soothing to be completely lost in the information, skimming multiple sites, caffeine crisp in the veins, sleep 3 hours late on arrival and looking at more delays before it arrives.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:


All these people who say that people are starting to have a problem focusing are ignoring another scare with just as much anecdotal evidence: Video Games. Remember, people are spending too much time playing Video Games. I know people who can spend hours playing one game, and not a FPS where everything changes every two minutes, but RPGs where one must have complete focus. So, it’s not a focus issue, it’s a priorities issue (if it’s an issue at all).

If someone is going to make a moral panic, make one that isn’t contradicting an existing moral panic. It makes it easier to believe if it doesn’t contradict the listeners way of thinking.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: WHat kind of books ?

Does it matter? Assuming most books are grammatically correct and doesn’t contain spelling errors there shouldn’t be a problem. Obviously whatever they are reading is keeping their attention and you have to start somewhere! I read a bunch of books with poorly thought out plots when I was younger and as I grew up looked for more substance.

Anonymous Coward says:

My biggest complaint about multitasking is not if I want to take my mind off work and watch a couple of Youtube videos. IMO that increases my productivity, for the reasons above (I may feel motivated again to do more work after I got my mind off things). My complaint is about companies that want you to divide your headspace between multiple projects or project activities, like “instead of working 100% on proofreading, why don’t you use 30% of your time on proofreading, 45% on doing some flash animations, and 25% on calculating the profits for next trimester”. Argh.

Anonymous Coward says:

I work with kids.. and the fact that they read more books is an urban legend. The real fact is that they do not; they have to be forced into reading. As the generla population grows, of course you would think more books are being read.. as the people that already read lots will read more and so forth. But kids? No way. I also have lots of trouble with your claims that they can write better due to the internet.. because the fact is that general grades have been going downhill for the past 10 years, so much that they had to put in place lots of reform…

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I work with kids.. and the fact that they read more books is an urban legend. The real fact is that they do not;

Yes, because one person’s anecdote is proof over two separate studies that show the opposite…

I also have lots of trouble with your claims that they can write better due to the internet.. because the fact is that general grades have been going downhill for the past 10 years, so much that they had to put in place lots of reform…

On that front, we’ve pointed to nearly a dozen studies. Again, your refutation is that arbitrarily assigned grades are going down?

lawlady (profile) says:

Kids these days

Kids read more books when they have less “screen” time – TV, Internet, video games, whatever. My kids (teenagers) hold their on on our family library card – but, then, I restrict their screen time to two hours per school day (exclusive of homework).

What do they read? Young adult novels, mostly – the girls like High School fiction (like they don’t get enough RL drama, already), the boy likes SciFi. My oldest invades my collection of (scifi, urban fantasy) fiction on a regular basis.

Joe Schmo says:

Re: Kids these days

I’d have to agree with this too. My teenage boys read quite often and have moved from beginner books to ones with more substance. Now, most of it is given to them from the school but there’s a reason they are in AP classes…they’ve been reading for years.

We also limit the “screen” time but they enjoy reading blogs and non-fiction content. They are not always playing games when they are online and have showed me some interesting articles related to science and history. We’ve also had some good discussions at dinner relating to current events that they found online.

I would guess that there are probably many variables in determining one’s success (or lack of success) in multitasking. For some, technology has likely made them more efficient while for others, less so.

lawlady (profile) says:

Multi Tasking and Connecting

IMO, today’s explosion of ‘multi-tasking’ opportunities (twitter, blogs, cell phone texts and voice) is a result of two factors – availability (naturally) and the human need for connections. Check out Leonard Sweet’s “The Gospel According to Starbucks,” particularly, chapters 9 and 10 where the author notes that the very fact of our technological advancements and modern lifestyle isolates us from our hard-wired need for human contact. The use of technology to be constantly connected to other humans helps to overcome our (real or perceived) isolation from other humans.

NotFromToronto (profile) says:

Every Generation Does This

Every generation sings that the sky is falling because of the shortcomings of the next generation.

Generally, the innovations that stick around do so because they are creating value and not hindering it. This happens organically even without explicit evaluation. So, without any concrete evidence at all, I’m inclined to believe we are more productive as an interactive society than we might otherwise have been.

Jerms says:

Re: Multitasking

I disagree. Multitasking is NOT a euphemism for getting nothing done.
It’s said that women multitask better than men, in general. From a neurophysiological point of view, it’s more accurate to say that women can task-switch more efficiently than men, with less overhead computation required. I believe that “the next generation” are even more adept at this than the previous one (my generation, I guess).
Switching from one task to another does NOT mean that neither task gets completed, just that their completion times are closer together.

Overcast (profile) says:

Re: I have no problem multitasking

As I write this, I am contemplating an engineering problem, play a game online cards and I just answered my telephone.

So what was it we were talking about again?

haha, sounds like me working from home – kids in one ear, phone of the other, game running that I’m task swapping between while working on servers and junk.

Fun fun.

PrometheeFeu (profile) says:

Well, a big issue of the studies on multitasking is that they only take into account your productivity given that you are working on something and that you are or not multitasking. I know that multitasking makes me more efficient because it makes it significantly easier for me to get to work. While without the option to multi-task I might procrastinate for extended periods of time, if I multi-task, I will reduce my procrastination time significantly. Of course if you keep a single task in the buffer and work on it constantly without adding the extra cost of task switching each task will be completed faster. But it misses the real point. The useful data is not how long it take you to finish a task from the moment you start it. The important data is how long it takes for you to finish a task from the moment you receive the task. And I agree that multitasking makes me a much happier person. Which most likely in the long run will make me more productive.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

[i]The important data is how long it takes for you to finish a task from the moment you receive the task[/i]

You “receive” the text message and begin responding. Just as you press send, the deer crosses the road. Next call goes to the tow truck. Congrats, at least you were more productive as you typed away.

slackr (profile) says:

That reminds me

I watched a fascinating presention by Dan Pink at about the efficiency of employees when given a task with performance bonus in proportion to how well they executed the task. A common scenario in todays business world.

The result was so long as the task was simple the bonus was a good incentive. As soon as any level of complexity was added to the task that required a higher level of cognition the bonus became detrimental to performance.

It would seem to me that many of these studies fall into a similar category of looking at “productivity”. Is what is being measured being accurately applied to the real workforce where tasks, decisions and projects are invariably much more complex?

Griff (profile) says:


There’s a state called flow that you can get into and you lose yourself in something and you focus on it far better. In that mental state you get the task in hand done faster.

You might take 20 mins to settle into that state.
But if every 15 mins the phone rings, you never will.
You can’t be in flow with many tasks at once.

Not everyone NEEDS to get a task done that requires a level of concentration. Many commenters have described scenarios where productivity is not really that important.
But when real productivity is what you need, multi tasking is not going to let you complete any one task in the optimal way.

But some people have simply never experienced flow and have no idea what it means. With multi tasking, they probably never will.

Christopher Cashell (profile) says:

Both multi-tasking and single-tasking have their place.

I don’t think we should necessarily look at it from the standpoint of which is better in an absolute sense, but which is more appropriate for the situation. They each can offer advantages and disadvantages.

I’m going to betray my geekiness here, everyone may not understand the analogy, but since we’ve built computers in many ways to mimic our own brains and thinking processes, I’ll go with it. Consider the scheduler in a computer Operating System. There are many ways to handle scheduling, but the two big trade-offs that have to be dealt with are throughput (amount of work done) and latency (responsiveness). Increasing one will decrease the other. Neither is “better” than the other, but each is more appropriate in certain circumstances.

With our increased methods of communication, people are having to “multi-task” significantly more than they did in the past. It’s true that this reduces throughput, as they lose productivity to the task switching. However, they’re reducing latency (increasing their responsiveness) in responding to the different tasks.

Sometimes this is a bad thing, especially if throughput is your primary consideration. However, there are a lot of roles in our modern world where ignoring new tasks to complete an existing task is worse than responding to the new tasks. Particularly if the new tasks are small or can be handled quickly, it may be more useful from a business perspective to slightly reduce overall productivity to increase responsiveness to potentially important tasks.

Another side consideration is that some people are very good at taking a task and working on it with dedication and single-mindedness until it’s complete. Other people do better when they’re able to work for a while on a task, then take a break from it and work for a while on something else. Knowing which side you fall in can help you be more productive.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:


Great article, again.
One other question comes up, though:
Why do we feel we have to micromanage everything others do? Why not let the “market” take care of it? If you can make multitasking work, go for it! If it doesn’t, either you will recognize that fact and find a new “business model”, or become “dinosaurs”.
Either way, “the market” takes care of these things, IMO.

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