Sunday, October 22, 2017

Multitasking is Really Task Switching and Doesn't Work (630-2)

Chapter 5 of It's a Jungle in There recommends that an entrepreneur be a multitasker. Some activities can be completed simultaneously such as listening to a podcast and exercising. However, for cognitive tasks, divided attention is merely task-switching. That is, the person is not actually accomplishing two things at once, but one is rapidly switching between two different activities. The high rate of accidents seen with individuals who are attempting to drive and text demonstrates the difficulty of accomplishing two cognitive tasks at the same time.

For example, when running, I watched a woman slowly drive toward the stop sign, then go slower and slower. I looked inside before deciding if I would run in front of her (by then) stopped car. She was, of course, texting/reading email or doing whatever with the phone. I ran behind the car (which is actually dangerous as well) because it was clear she didn't see me and would potentially hit the gas after she realized that she was looking at her phone and wasn't actually driving the car.

The human brain cannot "multitask" just as most computers cannot. [actually, multithreaded computers do process things at the same time, which is both wonderful and kind of scary]. Computers can task-switch really fast and pay no penalty as they switch, but apparently, people do.

The penalty for biologically based intelligence is attentional inertia. When we switch some of the attention is still focused on the older task. The time spent between task-switching can be relatively rapid and yield little loss of productivity if the cognitive load is small. Chess masters can play multiple games at the same time because, for them, each game is actually a relatively simple task.

As an example, for short-term task switching the delay can be up to 27 seconds for simple verbal actions when driving. Typical interruptions have long-term consequences. The exact figure is probably not obtainable, but the data is clear that we are not computers - we pay the price for distractions and task switching.

How about even more complicated cognitive tasks? Activities especially those requiring high cognitive activity take some significant time to return back to their previous level of efficiency. Since it takes time for human brains to recover from task switching/distraction, with each interruption, we lose time and focus, and it takes us time to recover. For more complicated tasks, some estimate 23 minutes and 15 seconds [not 16?] to recover from a distraction. Others identify 10-minute effort to get "back on track." Assume that with each one it takes 5 to 15 minutes to get back to where you were (full speed ahead, making progress). The more interruptions, the worse it gets. Eventually, we don't do either task very well. In reality, if they come more often than 10 minutes most likely one is actually never hitting full speed concerning focus. 

In other words, if one is pondering the future of the company and designing a mission statement, it is best to stay on that task and not multitask when phone rings, or someone else asks for your attention, or a new email shows up.

The author attributes his desire and interest in multitasking to undiagnosed or undiscovered attention deficit disorder. Whether that diagnosis is accurate or not, the point is that his approach to problems uniquely works for him. One might also argue that it not only works for him, but it works with the enterprise that he is trying to start. In contrast, the typical recommendation based on the above reality is to focus and pay careful attention to the task at hand. One must attempt to reach a conclusion before moving on to another action. As an aside, most treatment of ADHD stresses the need to have a thoughtful plan to guide activities and to decrease distractions to increase the ability to focus and improve productivity.

So stay focused, but don't get stuck on a single task. Switching a function to another one is the proper choice when one is not making progress or realizes that the task is far more difficult than initially anticipated. And, emergencies do arise where one has to stop one task and pick up another one. But again, one is not multitasking, one is redirecting attention based on priority. In this case, when the fire is put out, go back and address the more minor concern.

And when you are driving, please don't use that time to develop your mission statement.

Photo Credit: Airman Sadie Colbert Released 150802-F-MZ237-054.JPG. On official US Air Force Government Website


  1. Hi Brad! Thanks for the lesson in brain vs multitaksing. I've heard this information before, but your explanation was very clear. I've said one of the things that has frustrated me about becoming a mother is that it forces me to multitask. I am a very focused thinker, and quite enjoy pondering a single subject for extended time. Being a mom with toddlers does not allow much time for extended pondering and I find I often can barely get through a sentence without interruption. In fact, while writing this, I was interrupted no less than five times! lol! There really is no such thing as mulitasking, so I find it interesting what you've said about the amount of times concentration gets broken reduces the effectiveness of perceived multitasking. Very interesting read!

    1. Thanks for dropping by Joy,

      There is some data that women are better at task-switching than men. Most likely it's due to the experiences you mentioned. Hopefully, as men become more and more involved in childcare, they will improve their skills in terms of task-switching as well. There's some more recent data with Millennials, whose brain developed in the age of multitasking. When watching Millennials, you can see that they are quite adept at doing two things at once if not three things at once. I'm a potential believer that if one trains the brain early enough, potentially one can do two cognitive tasks at the same time. However, for most of us, it is too late.

      Still, in terms of driving a car, I don't think anyone can multitask that with another cognitive task. Some challenges require full brain attention.

      -- Brad