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Demystifying the Myth of Multitasking

Third in my “how-not-to” series looks at the myth of multitasking and is based on my more than 35 years of work in mainframe IT, reviewing mistakes I’ve seen or participated in and helping others to avoid them. It’s also my second consecutive “Demystifying the Myth” article. My first article, “End Users: A Programmer’s Best Friend and Worst Enemy,” can be found here. The second article, “Demystifying The Myth Of Measuring Programmers With Metrics” can be found here.

Multitasking is defined as the ability to perform two or more tasks simultaneously. For computers, a more specific definition is the ability of a single CPU to execute two or more jobs concurrently. On the surface, it seems like a great idea, and as for computers, multitasking was a great breakthrough. Multitasking—in this case regarding humans—can be detrimental when used improperly.

Multitasking Gone Bad

I once worked with an IT department that was obsessed with multitasking. After submitting a compile, you were expected to work on something else, like email. When the compile was done, you were to switch right back and start testing, because it’s more important to work on a program than read an email. Yet it’s pointless to read the first few sentences of an email and drop it. Why not finish it? Even if the programmer went back, the mind had switched gears to email, and now had to switch back. What was that change I made? What problem am I fixing? Where in the program? And dang it, I want to respond to that email! But multitasking is of my imperative, because I’m assessed on it!

Even though not measurable, failure to multitask supposedly proved insufficient work was getting done, a hit on an evaluation. It was ironic, because this multitasking obsession was a major cause of diminished productivity. It’s one thing if a compile takes more than 10 minutes, another if it takes under five. Productive work can be done during longer breaks; most short break time is spent mentally switching gears.

Programmers are people, not computers, and their brains are designed for survival, recognition, simultaneous input from all senses, socializing and interacting with other people. Even after 70 years of evolving at the speed of Moore’s law (The first general-purpose electronic computer, ENIAC, was built in 1946), there are many areas where the brain is superior to the fastest computer. But brains weren’t designed for multitasking. The consequence of that is a paradox: While it would seem—especially to managers who have spent much time working with computers—that multi-tasking would assure maximum productivity, just the opposite is true. In fact, it’s even true with computers. Switching from one task to another costs overhead; too many concurrent tasks means degraded performance.

The Myth of Multitasking

A counterintuitive aspect of multi-tasking is that initially it seems a great idea. Less time wasted in wait mode means more time in execute mode. But there’s also something called in the zone, where concentration is totally focused on a problem, challenge or logic, and thinking is devoted to the task at hand. When focus is clear, it continues while a compile runs, a file loads or a print completes.

I may be sitting there looking at a screen, but my mind is pondering task details. That sustains itself during wait time, but it’s totally destroyed by execute time that takes thinking elsewhere. In fact, one of the more definitive studies, “Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking” by PLoS ONE, concludes, “thus, the people who are most likely to multi-task appear to be those who have difficulty focusing attention or concentrating on a single task.” I contend that a corollary is those who are proficient at focusing attention or concentrating on a single task don’t like to multitask, It makes a job harder and causes performance to suffer. It decreases job satisfaction. I like work where I can devote myself to a project, solving problems, formulating solutions, turning an idea into something real. Sense of accomplishment is a great feeling.

Another study conclusion was “the negative correlation between OSPAN [Operational Span] task performance and multitasking activity provides direct evidence that deficits in working memory and executive functioning are associated with higher levels of multitasking.” An OSPAN task is actually two distinct and different tasks (memorization using letters and math using numbers) done concurrently, resulting in different outputs (recall and correctness). The net of it is that our brains function less efficaciously and makes more mistakes when multitasking. An increase in mistakes can be particularly detrimental to performance, because they’re extremely costly. Fixing mistakes and debugging errors often takes a lot more time than writing the code correctly in the first place.

Other conclusions of the study:

  • It appears that the persons who are most likely to multitask are those with the most inflated views of their abilities.
  • High-sensation seekers tended to report greater multitasking activity than low-sensation seekers.
  • Insensitivity to risk may generally contribute to multitasking and the willingness of high-sensation seekers to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously.
  • Multitasking was shown to be particularly high among impulsive individuals who act without thinking and who have difficulty regulating their attention.
  • These findings clearly suggest that multitasking is a matter of who is able to not multitask as much as it is a matter of who is able to multitask.

The Stanford Report affirms the PLoS ONE study. Anthony Wagner, associate professor of psychology at Stanford, states: "When they're [multitaskers] in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they're not able to filter out what's not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they're slowed down by that irrelevant information." Multitasking reduces the brain’s productivity and causes more mistakes.

To prove how multitasking can negatively impact your productivity, try a multitasking game yourself here. It demonstrates how—on short-lived tasks—the majority of time can be spent switching between tasks.

Be Mindful When Multitasking

Not all multitasking is bad. Like most things, the problem lies in taking it to the extreme. If a task takes substantial time, move on to another task. After extended time, attention wanes. An IT professional needs some latitude in determining when to multitask; we’re all different.

It’s when a workplace demands work be packed into every second, when it’s administered punitively and unreasonably, that multitasking defeats its own purpose. So if your boss tells you to multitask more, give it due consideration, but maybe produce a copy of this article. You’re possibly being told to decrease your productivity and reduce the quantity and quality of your job product.

Jim Schesvold can be reached at

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