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NYT: New data on the problems of "multitasking"

Slow Down, Multitaskers, and Don’t Read in Traffic - New York Times

'The Myth of Multitasking' by timothymorgan on Flickr

Yesterday's New York Times front page ran an article pulling together the results of several recent studies looking at how interruptions and attempts to multitask can affect the quality of work as well as the length of recovery time.

Here's one bit that really grabbed me:

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist and co-author, with Shamsi Iqbal of the University of Illinois, of a paper on the study that will be presented next month.

And, from a PDF of another of the studies cited ("Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI"), here's a telling snippet from the article's abstract (yes, most of the rest of it is well over my head):

When humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task usually leads to postponement of the second one. This task delay is thought to result from a bottleneck occurring at a central, amodal stage of information processing that precludes two response selection or decision-making operations from being concurrently executed...These results suggest that a neural network of frontal lobe areas acts as a central bottleneck of information processing that severely limits our ability to multitask.

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My own feelings on the myth of multi-tasking are well-documented, but it's fascinating to see research interest focused in this area -- although it's certainly not surprising, given its potential impact on knowledge workers and the industries that employ them. Again, from yesterday's NYT article:

The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year...

The information age is really only a decade or two old in the sense of most people working and communicating on digital devices all day, Mr. Spira said. In the industrial era, it took roughly a century until Frederick Winslow Taylor in 1911 published his principles of “scientific management” for increasing worker productivity.

“We don’t have any equivalent yet for the knowledge economy,” Mr. Spira said.

Morgan's picture

Jim - I was thinking EXACTLY...

Jim -

I was thinking EXACTLY the same thing about this little diversion I am taking to "collect my thoughts" by seeing what Merlin is up to. Oh no - my 2 minute break is worse than not taking one...

I know that this information is about interuptions and multitasking, but does this information impact the need to take mental breaks (and their length)? We should also be taking breaks to improve productivity... how does that work in light of the central bottleneck and the 15 minutes to return to work? Does that mean I should MORE 43folders (or for longer periods of time) or do I have to pzizz until my mind is like water again before returning to work...

The other thought while reading this (and it isn't new but a different spin on this research) is that GTD supports trying to reduce multitasking even when you are working on one task.

When I am too busy "planning while doing" and not getting anything done, there is nothing like a good dose of WSD (writing stuff down) to get the planning cycles out of my head and THEN doing. It is such a great productivity boost that is shows, once again, that the less multitasking the better. Anyone know of any studies that look at this type of multitasking?





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