Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

Multi-Tasking Revisited

17 May

Over a year ago, I expressed my theory and opinion about multi-tasking. I still haven’t changed my viewpoint and have further added to how I share my vision with others.

Initially when I share my thought that multi-tasking is a myth with people I know, they don’t quite fully support or agree with me. There seems to be a general understanding of my logic, but a resistance to buy into it. It’s not a concept that I typically share at work either – at least not early since people sometimes feel that my lack of belief in multi-tasking may mean that I am not up to the task or that I’m not as productive as my peers. It’s this association with productivity that makes people grab on to the idea that not only is multi-tasking a positive and productive attribute, but it’s something that they have built much of their professional and personal images on.

The additional explanation that I include with my theory these days includes the idea that not all tasks require the same intense level of focus to execute successfully. It’s because of this fact, that the appearance of multi-tasking is allowed to be argued. For example, people argue that they can walk and chew bubble gum or drive and talk on the phone at the same time.

So does that mean people can multi-task? No. It’s task swapping. A person focuses for some time on a given task and then focuses on another and back again and so on. This can be done in the span of seconds per task or small fractions of seconds. As you add more tasks, you juggle this time slicing between all the parts and reduce the overall percentage of time you spend focused on performing any given task.

Some tasks are very elementary are can be done with virtually no effort at all – they’re almost instinctual, requiring little attention or effort to get done. An example of this is chewing bubble gum. Very little effort or focus is needed to do this successfully. So it’s no wonder that you can do this while also doing other menial tasks. But increase the difficulty of the activity at hand and you can not afford to split your attention between several or even a single other activity.

Imagine, as an example, that you are driving down a long stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere; no cars sharing the road with you. The road is flat and wide, there are clear skies above and you are in no rush to be anywhere quickly. You drive easily and without any anxiety. You find it easy to reach for the cooler in the seat next to you. And without needing to stop or pull over, you begin removing the ingredients to prepare your snack. No big deal, “multi-tasking” successful.

Now let’s just change a little bit of this scenario. The road is now narrow and winding. It’s dark and crowded on the streets and you’re rushing to get your child to the emergency room. How likely is it that you could successfully prepare your snack as you could in the scenario above?

The point is that as the intensity, level of difficulty or criticality of the task at hand increases, this will raise the focus demand to the point that there is no time “free” to swap in another task. That is, we cannot focus 100% to more than a single task at once. We can focus 50% to two seperate tasks if they can each be accomplished with that level of attention. But that will ultimately be swapping back and forth and not truly concurrent.

My observations are built on my own logic and experience over my lifetime. I could be wrong, but I think it’s a theory that makes a lot of sense. And it turns out that there are others who share this opinion too. It turns out that they happen to have PhD following their names and have spent countless hours and dollars to prove and support this theory.

Until next time, gotta run. I’m having a hard time writing this and watching Spider Man 3.