Multitasking—We're Not Actually Good at It
The recent death of Clifford Nass, known for his study of multitasking, brought this contentious topic back into the news. It’s contentious because people believe they’re good at multitasking. But the research of Nass and others suggests that multitasking is a myth; though we may wish to believe otherwise, we’re not very good at doing many things at one time. What we experience is the illusion of competence.
Nass’s interest was in how well people could switch between multiple applications and juggle computer, phone, and television screens. The population Nass studied was perfect for this research: Stanford University students, many of whom often use four or more devices at one time while writing papers, checking Facebook, tweeting, texting, listening to music, and no doubt also having a conversation and munching on pizza.
At the start of the study, Nass and his colleagues assumed that people who frequently used multiple devices would be skilled at ignoring irrelevant information and switching between tasks efficiently. The assumption proved false. In an NPR interview, Nass reported:
People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted. They initiate much larger parts of their brain that are irrelevant to the task at hand. … (T)hey're even terrible at multitasking. When we ask them to multitask, they're actually worse at it.
People don’t like to hear that they’re not good at multitasking. When Linda Rising described the pitfalls of multitasking during a tutorial on cognitive research at the 2013 Better Software Conference East last week, an attendee maintained that as a parent, she’s good at it.
Like many parents, this woman is no doubt skilled at doing multiple things at one time. And it would be ridiculous to claim that she’d be better off completing each task before starting the next; she has to do numerous things at once. Nevertheless, as the research has shown, doing more than one task at a time takes a toll on productivity, especially if any of the tasks is complex.
Despite this research, employees are often required to work on several projects at once. Johanna Rothman, who has written and spoken about multitasking among knowledge workers, has repeatedly emphasized that multitasking simply doesn’t work. Every time we attempt to multitask, we incur several costs, including stopping our current work, swapping out the current work, swapping in the new work, and eventually swapping the original work back in.
Rothman points out that the more unrelated the tasks, the less progress we make on any one task. It follows that the more projects we have, the fewer projects we finish. Not good.
I asked Linda Rising and Johanna Rothman at the conference if they’ve seen much evidence of a reduction in the amount of multitasking in the workplace. Both said no. What’s your experience?