Put Up Your Hands and Move Away from the Smartphone…

There has been a lot of interest in multitasking lately. People argue that it is impossible…that it is really nothing more than rapidly switching between doing two individual tasks. Others argue that it may be impossible for “older people” but that today’s “wired” generation can handle it. In fact, they argue that some people perform better when multitasking. Still others claim that we are hurting our health with all the stress and ADD-behaviors.

We decided to check some research and then float some of our own pet theories.

First, The Research…

A recent study by Stanford professor Clifford Nass (for details, check out the original article) showed that multitaskers may actually become more distractable. His team started with the assumption that multitaskers have a gift or skill. He discovered it wasn’t superb control over what they paid attention to — they performed poorly in the experiment because they could NOT ignore irrelevant stimuli. They then checked to see if the multitaskers were better at storing and organizing information…that too failed to pan out. Finally they checked for better skills at switching from one task to another…but no, the multitaskers performed poorly here to. They concluded, multitasking is a bad habit, not a preference or working style…if you multitask, you should stop.

In a recent New York Times post, Matt Richtel reported on similar research that found slightly different conclusions.  He found a study from the University of Utah that determined about 2.5% of people actually can multitask effectively, though they caution that the odds of either you or me actually being part of that group are low and recommended strongly against multitasking, especially when driving.


But, there was an article Time magazine published online that cited a study that found you could improve your ability to multitask by playing video games more than 5 hours a day. If that is what it takes, I will never find out. But, that might explain the perceived generational difference. However, this study, conducted by Daphne Bavelier, a professor at the University of Rochester, was targeted at “supertaskers” and it too cautioned that we, as individuals, should assume we are, in fact, part of the 97.5% of the population who are not capable of multitasking effectively.

Finally, there was a study that seems to show we can actually pay attention to two things at once…just not three. There is a portion of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex that gets involved when the person is sufficiently motivated (i.e., when there is enough perceived reward in doing two tasks). This part of the brain has two hemispheres and, for two tasks, it seems to split the work by hemisphere (based on brain imaging). But the third task gets in the way…maybe because there is no easy way to create three segments of your brain.

Now, the Pet Theories…

Richard Feynman was one of the physicists who worked on developing the atomic bomb. He was a brilliant mathematician but also an original thinker. As a physicist, he was often invented simple experiments to figure things out. For fun, he apparently got interested in multitasking more than 40 years ago. (He also invented the concept of nano-technology in a speech in 1959!)

Feynman tried different types of tasks, such as counting socks while reading the newspaper or trying to guess when a minute was over while climbing stairs. One thing he found was that people counted time differently. Some visualized a clock while others counted seconds by talking to themselves. Feynman could read the paper and count the time because he was counting out loud in his head…using his “audio” brain processes for counting, leaving his visual processes free for reading. One of his colleagues was able to talk and count time because he was visualizing the numbers.

Our take on Feynman’s conclusions, as well as the research above, is that the multitasking you are able to do is a function of how the brain works. Richard Restak reports that when you imagine doing a physical task, the brain circuits that are activated are the same as when you actually do it…except for the specific circuits that move the body. Imagining you are throwing a ball activates the same parts of your brain as actually throwing it, except for the parts that move your arm.

Feynman’s multitasking, and the researchers’ as well, varied depending less on the individual and more on the type of task. If you are using different parts of the brain, you can more easily multitask but if you need to use the same areas, it becomes impossible. That’s why you can talk on the phone and fold laundry at the same time pretty easily. But you can’t read and talk on the phone at the same time very well — both tasks are fighting over the “verbal” part of your brain.

The other key factor is conscious attention. In this, our experience seems to agree with the researchers that people can really only focus on one thing at a time. So, if you are folding laundry and talking on the phone, you probably aren’t thinking about the laundry too much. If something were to happen though, for example, you discover a sock is missing, you might lose a little of the conversational thread.

The importance of understanding these issues is that we have to consider the impact of multitasking employees when we design processes, run meetings (especially on-line meetings), build tools, and any number of work-related design and management activities. We may have to build in guards against multitasking or we may have to design things that are robust against multitasking (that is, they work acceptably even if people are multitasking).

Do you have any experiences or insights related to multitasking and performance? Please let us know.

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