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Multitasking: Good or bad?

We all do it, but how efficient is it? Roger Kay, Founder of Endpoint Technologies Associates, Inc. discusses Multitasking in Forbes.
Forbes | 18.07.2012
Most of the literature coming out of education circles these days fingers multitasking as contributing to lower achievement levels among students.

The essential argument goes: you’re not really multitasking; you’re just task switching, and not very efficiently at that. The standard recommendation: better to finish one task before moving on to another.

Say the word “multitasking” to a parent, and they’re likely to conjure up visions of their kids, laying on the floor in front of the TV, fingers flying over a cell phone as they text friends, multiplayer game up and running on the laptop next to them with its own chat windows open, and their homework lying, forlorn and forgotten, in front of them.

This confusion of activity is the multitasking that psychologists rave against. However, at least a few have found good news in multitasking.

Kelvin Lui and Alan Wong from The Chinese University of Hong Kong published a study this past spring that showed that those who frequently use different types of media at the same time appear to be better at integrating information from multiple senses when asked to perform a specific task. The authors posit that this result may be due to the subjects’ experience of spreading their attention over different sources of information while media multitasking.

And they must be right because my own son — who does it — says so.

However, despite heavy lobbying by teenagers, the preponderance of informed opinion seems to weigh on the other side.

Of course, looking closely at this behavior, one could argue that it isn’t really multitasking at all but rather constant task switching. Unlike the drummer playing 6/8 time with one foot 9/8 time with the other, 7/8 with one hand, and 4/4 with the other, these rapid serial task switchers aren’t really doing things all at once.

A chat window flickers with an incoming message, and the person swings over to it. An email notification comes up in the lower right-hand corner, bringing that task to the fore. The monster in the background of the videogame threatens to become more menacing, and he now has the attention focus. So, it’s really more like polling behavior.

Nonetheless, the term multitasking originally comes out of the computer science literature, and refers to independent computing threads run at the same time. Even there, though, during much of the history of computers, Von Neumann machines executed only one instruction at a time. If they performed this activity very fast, switching from one task to the next, humans sometimes interpreted the result as multitasking.

Recently, parallel architectures utilized by computer graphics firms like Advanced Micro Devices and Nvidia actually do run certain tasks at the same time, using multiple buses (communications pathways) that lead to separate computing engines. Other firms — Intel, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, for example — have built a degree of parallelism into their processors.

So, parallelism implies that multitasking not only exists, but in the case of computers is actually good. More work gets done faster.

In fact, multitasking is a requirement of operations management, that venerable branch of business studies that deals with how factories, supply chains, and research projects are run. The “critical path method” algorithm involves listing all tasks or jobs required to complete a project, the duration of each, and any dependencies (tasks that must be completed before another is undertaken; for example, in construction a foundation must be poured before sill boards can be laid). Based on dependencies and job-time lengths, a critical path is found through the process that defines the minimum total time to completion. All other tasks, for which there is “slack” (extra time either before or after the task), are fit around the critical path so as not to lengthen total job time.

Everything that can be is executed in parallel. The actual tasks are typically done by different people. The number of parallel job streams defines the labor requirement (how many people to put on the job).

But individuals do some of this operations management themselves. Short-order chefs and bar tenders keep a number of job streams going at once. The chef turns on the heat under a pan. While the pan heats, she goes to the refrigerator, takes out a lettuce and some eggs, tears the lettuce up quickly, and throws it in a strainer, running cold water from the sprayer head over it. Then, she cracks the eggs in a bowl, beats them quickly, and turns back to the pan. Dumping them in, she stirs them for a bit, turns the heat down, goes back to the sink to turn off the water, and lets the lettuce sit in the sink to drain. Back to the eggs, she stirs them some more, turns off the heat, and shovels them onto a plate. Shaking the strainer, she slides the salad in next to the eggs.

Some of this activity is rapid task switching, and some is real parallelism. Moving between eggs and lettuce is task switching, but the pan is actually heating as she preps the food, and the water is running over the lettuce while she stirs the eggs.

One could easily argue that no chef or bar tender could keep his job if he couldn’t do this sort of thing. Multitasking is a must in some situations.

Leadership itself requires a form of multitasking. The boss has to have the whole plan in his head and check continually with workers executing the plan to make sure they’re on target, and if they’re not, adjust the plan. Looked at closely, though, this activity appears to be more like rapid task switching than multitasking.

But as the literature points out, people are inefficient at changing focus too often, and individual tasks suffer from too much switching.


Some jobs can and have to be run in parallel, but one person should probably not be doing more than one thing literally at the same time, lest quality suffer. Rapid task switching, which may look like multitasking, is common and required for many types of activity. Some types of multitasking come naturally: a soccer player has to run down the field and assess the situation at the same time, adjusting his or her path as necessary.

Videogames may be fun, but they probably cause total homework job time to increase.

Multitask where you can, task switch when you have to, and focus on the job at hand as much as possible for the best results.
About the author: Forbes