Opinion and Return on Technology

Multitasking, if it exists, is not productive

July 13, 2013

One of the supposed blessings of technology is our ability to get more done in less time, to multitask. But experts say such a productivity bump is illusory. I have to agree.

Whether you’ll agree with me depends on how you define multitasking. Take my own case of supposed multitasking. I keep several applications open during the business day and switch among them as the situation demands. One, for example, is a combination contacts list, calendar and email reader, while another is a browser with multiple tabs, and yet others may be Excel and Word. There’s a synergy between many of them, such as when I complete a spreadsheet and send it to a colleague as an email attachment and propose a meeting time after consulting my calendar. So I suppose I multitask.

But my multitasking is a deliberate, stately affair. I rarely have to answer a phone, so I can concentrate more fully on a given task and use several tools to get it done, the same way a carpenter can use a room full of tools to measure, cut and assemble, but still be executing only one task at a time.

Emails rarely arrive in my inbox with fire trailing behind them. I’m almost never interrupted by someone rapping on my figurative office door. My use of several tools in succession isn’t really multitasking in my mind, because I don’t have to switch from main task to main task all that often. So when I’m writing or number-crunching, I can generally stay with it for at least several minutes at a time before I have to do something else.

True multitasking, though, is supposed to involve rapid-fire jumping from goal to goal in a kind of mental plate-spinning. In a frenetic office, the temptation to combine and overlap tasks is overwhelming. I’ve seen people try to talk on the phone, type out an email, and hunt down information online, all at the same time, doing none of those jobs quickly or well. Or they might be driving and holding a meeting by cell phone, trying to make business decisions while switching lanes between 18-wheelers, something that imperils both executive and truck driver while delivering subpar decisions.

I understand the urge to multitask. The pace of business is rapid and unrelenting, so the pressure to squeeze a bit more work into tiny spans of time isn’t just alluring, but perhaps the difference between having a job and having to stand in line at the food bank. Multitasking might appear to be the answer, especially for businessfolk who are all too often evaluated by how animated they seem during the day while executing swarms of little tasks.

Experts, however, tell us multitasking is mostly for show. The brain isn’t like a multilane highway. Rather, it’s a narrow, meandering footpath with room for only one thing at a time. If something else needs to be done at the moment, whatever is using the path has to step out of the way and wait.

This should be a familiar feeling to those of us who have tried to remember someone’s name while balancing the checkbook. You can do arithmetic, or you dredge up that name, but not both at once. Trying to do so results in slow memory retrieval and a momentary delay in calculation. It can’t be helped.

Experts often disdain the word multitasking in favor of “task-switching,” which they say is more descriptive of what really happens. You’re not operating in parallel, but in series. There’s no “multi” about it. And there’s a time penalty for task-switching that usually goes unrecognized, as the brain has to regain its focus on the previous task.

Of course, it might feel as if you’re doing both at once, and that’s part of the problem. What we feel isn’t always what’s real. Again, experts warn us that although we may pride ourselves on machine-gun multitasking, what we’re actually doing is making more mistakes faster while likely stressing ourselves to no good purpose. We might even feel proud of ourselves for being so dedicated.

Even worse, because some tasks take a particularly long time to regain focus, perhaps 10 or 15 minutes to return to full activity, interruptions can be major time-wasters. We’ve all pushed time bubbles into our schedules on weekends, evenings or early mornings when we can do things that are devastated by interruptions. There’s an ancient saying that highlights the futility of multitasking: “less haste, more speed.”

Today, there’s a sad expectation that every email will be processed within seconds of receipt and every phone call will be answered or returned before the ringtone dies away. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s productive to do it.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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