Multitasking Considered Harmful

By | January 5, 2005

Here’s your challenge for the day. Read this Seattle Times Magazine article from start to finish without trying to multitask. Even though the article puts forth cogent arguments for why multitasking (especially with intellectual tasks like reading) by humans is usually inefficient, I couldn’t stop myself. First, I had to check on the progress of some code that I was compiling. Then I had to see if I had received any urgent email since I had last checked five minutes ago. Finally, I caught myself tabbing back to another half-read article from that morning.

How many books are you in the middle of reading? For me, the answer is eight, and I’m not counting the programming or other technical books that I am constantly grazing through. If I counted those books, the number would be about fifteen. Why do I think this is a good idea? Why am I surprised that I rarely finish a book (though I actually did finish two in the last month)?

The friend at work who forwarded the Seattle Times article to me was interrupted five times by people while he was trying to read it. I was responsible for at least one of those interruptions. Sorry, Eric.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (challenge #2 – say his full name fast five times in a row) wrote an influential book in 1991 entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience about how achieving a “flow” state is not just highly productive, but also very emotionally and intellectually pleasing. One of the many books on my bookshelf that I haven’t started to multitask on yet is The Evolving Self, a sequel to Flow. In The Evolving Self, Csikszentmihalyi proposes that we should carefully examine our genetically driven feelings and behaviors, as what was key to our successful evolution hundred years ago may by counter-productive to our pursuit of happiness today.

Fortunately for the recidivist multitaskers among us, some boffins at Oregon State are working on a software system called TaskTracer. TaskTracer attempts to track what software applications and documents you are working with as part of each of the tasks in your virtual multitasking ToComplete list. When you get interrupted, TaskTracer alledgedly informs you of the previous state of the task that you are switching to and what you need to do next on that task. A key factor, of course, is understanding the nature of the task.

Naively, this seems to me to be a case of a software engineer who understands how CPUs and operating systems work with their program counters, registers, threads, stack frames, etc., and wants to extend that to how a person works. Of course, a person doesn’t organize her tasks, processes, and flows as cleanly as a CPU running several applications, because she doesn’t have to. Then again, TaskTracer doesn’t have to be perfect in order to provide a lot of value. I think there is a big risk, though, that it might encourage the easily susceptible among us (Google Translate translates that last phrase to mean “me”) to crank our multitasking up to eleven, though.

4 thoughts on “Multitasking Considered Harmful

  1. Richard Berger

    So, here I was thinking – this is no challenge whatsoever. I can read this article without doing anything else. And I made it nearly all the way through until I was interrupted by the kids (it was time to get them off to school). At about that point, I realized that I had been eating breakfast while reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Although I think that I multitask often, I find that I have much longer stretches than 12 minutes during which I am working on a single task. However, I must admit that I generally stop doing what I am doing when email arrives – so much so that I will sometimes quit Outlook and leave it off for a few hours – it is just too addictive.

  2. michaelm

    I nearly made it, but was also visited by my daughter… can’t consider her an interruption technically though, as it’s a natural flow to read a little and interact with her, not to mention the fact that the word interruption impies (to me) a priority focus on the earlier task.

    I liked the parts of the article that talk about “new reward centers” and “amazing ourselves to death” as I can easily relate to the reward-cycle of information gathering and the risks of overload.

    For me, these are important things to keep in mind, especially as a teacher. Efficient teaching necessitates some degree of multi-tasking and constant decision making on multiple fronts, but technology isn’t a part of my all-day-long reality, which I think makes it easier to sustain internet browsing after hours than it would be if I had a computer-based job.

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