Human Multi-tasking

by John W. Stout

Some time back, I started writing an article and found myself having to “multi-task” to get it completed. Specifically, I started writing (on another topic), stopped to participate in a scheduled conference call and finalize details of a new project, came back to the article and found that I had to re-read what I had written and rev back up to the original writing tempo. Then, as soon as I had some writing momentum going, I got pulled into an e-mail exchange with a consultant to review a legal contract. Once done with that, I returned to the article and repeated the earlier pattern of re-reading what I’d written, revving the momentum back up, etc. This pattern continued throughout the morning, with some of the alternate activities initiated on my own, some not. All during this time, I was made aware of the random sounds from nearby smartphones, sports talk radio, and a car alarm firing off down the block.

Later, I was fascinated to learn that, while “I got a lot of things done,” it took me the better part of four hours to complete a draft of a 900-word article, which probably would have been an hour max without the multi-tasking.

Would I have been better off in a distraction-free environment simply buckling down and writing the article straight through?

Over the years, I’ve read some articles about human multi-tasking, so I started investigating this some more.

A little background. The term “multi-tasking” has migrated from the computing world, where it has a specific functional meaning, to the workaday world. The computer definition suggests that multiple computational tasks are being performed simultaneously, but in actual fact, unless the computer system has multiple processors that actually perform separate tasks in parallel, the CPU is switching back and forth between tasks and doing this so rapidly that it appears to be performing them all at once.

Whether or not a human being can truly multi-task is open to some debate. I am not going to get into the various arguments, other than to say one side of the debate states that the physical limitations of the human brain don’t permit true multi-tasking; the other side says that the human mind works on many levels and is continually performing numerous tasks, some automatically and some at the conscious instigation of the person.

Whether or not either of these is true, the empirical research shows that the best way to get something done is to walk it through to completion, while ignoring distractions or working in an environment where random events can’t intrude. I’m not suggesting that hunkering down in a sealed bunker is the only way to get something done. Indeed, sometimes one has to have interactions to complete.

Software developers (a group to which I have been a member in the not too distant past), and engineers in general, are continually dealing with the human version of multi-tasking in the crafting of their professional products. Several developers I’ve spoken with consider the human multi-tasking issue to be one of the top 2 or 3 reasons responsile for the production of substandard code.

There seem to be two types of human multi-tasking (the names I’ve given them below are my own):

Distracted Multi-tasking.
This form is one of which we are all too aware and is destructive of productivity. It involves such things as trying to get something done while experiencing unplanned interruptions, unpredictable changes in the environment (like the guy in the car ahead of you slamming on his brakes, for example), or even physical discomfort.

Directing your attention from one task to another and back again adds time to whatever you are trying to accomplish. That’s because there is time spent restarting and refocusing when shifting back to the original task. This added time has been measured in many tests and is the element most destructive to getting the main task done. Note that this includes the reduction of reaction time, which is slowed during the time required to focus when one’s attention is pulled off suddenly to handle a potential emergency situation.

The above is a factor in the ever-lengthening of software project schedules.

Designed Multi-tasking. This is multi-tasking, deliberately planned. Given a list of things that you need or want to finish in a given time, you can divide your time across the tasks, but work on each one singly. This form works best when you can work on each task toward a definite goal. The goal can be to accomplish as much as possible in a given period of time, or to complete a specific task, or a combination of both. I find that the latter approach is best whenever possible. In the case of writing, an example could be the goal of “technical documentation one-third complete, with an outline done for the content of the final two-thirds, done in one hour.” This goal has one additional positive facet: it plans out the completion of the entire task in a concrete way. Then when picking up the next iteration of the task, there is a plan from which to immediately begin.

Another form of Designed Multi-tasking is seen during collaboration. When a group of people are collaborating on the accomplishment of a specific goal, then each one is primarily paying attention to the goal. Some of the individuals might not be needed at all times, so they work on other things to fill their idle time. Shifting from task to task has its downside, but here the benefit of filling the idle time outweighs the cost of task shifting.

There are a couple of “x-factors” that must be taken into account when you opt for taking any multi-tasking approach.

X1. Pressure. Researchers seem to agree that multi-tasking in a high pressure situation (tight deadline, lots of potential random changes in the environment) is a bad move. A classic example would be trying to text on a smartphone while simultaneously experiencing the stress and random factors involved in driving a car.

X2. Environment. Random sounds and motion are the principal distractors. If you like to produce in an environment with some sound, avoid a medium that is demanding attention from multiple senses, such as a television.

Interestingly, one study I read about mentioned that people who frequently practice multi-tasking tend to perform better at certain visual tests. There was no speculation as to why, but simply the practice of shifting attention and re-focusing quickly seems likely as the reason.

If you are wondering, this article was written using Designed Multi-tasking.

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