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Education Science

Multitasking Considered Detrimental 371

djvaselaar sends along an article from The New Atlantis that summarizes recent research indicating that multitasking may be detrimental to work and learning. It begins, "In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice: 'There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.' To Chesterfield, singular focus was not merely a practical way to structure one's time; it was a mark of intelligence... E-mails pouring in, cell phones ringing, televisions blaring, podcasts streaming--all this may become background noise, like the 'din of a foundry or factory' that [William] James observed workers could scarcely avoid at first, but which eventually became just another part of their daily routine. For the younger generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. And given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown us, this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being."
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Multitasking Considered Detrimental

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  • by mrbluze ( 1034940 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:21AM (#23900337) Journal
    a bit trksey to typ wif on hand while im ... oh lookie shiny ponies!
    • by jimmydevice ( 699057 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:25AM (#23900361)
      What? BRB
      • by fyngyrz ( 762201 ) * on Monday June 23, 2008 @04:39AM (#23900939) Homepage Journal

        Kind of sad if you really didn't get it... I hope that was just "more joke."

        I just wrote something [] on the superiority of written matter over video because written matter has numerous advantages that relate to focus and reflection. I value these things. Right at that time, I ran into this very article (I mean the one TFS refers to), I found it a horrifying thing to read — like reading someone's report of losing their own mind.

        Since I wrote it up, I've been paying attention to how others pay attention, and I've seen a few things that signify, at least to me, that the problem is widespread.

        For instance, I introduced our youngest boy (he's in his twenties) to some music that is in his line of interest (he plays bass, this musician I was showing him is a fabulous bassist) and he listened for, oh, maybe 15 seconds before he began to talk about music, which segued quickly into other areas. I didn't answer him; he just took off on his own.

        Before the piece had finished playing, he was completely off on something else, and he had no idea what I was talking about afterwards when I asked him direct questions about the bass techniques demonstrated in the cut.

        It was disheartening, to say the least.

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          Sometimes when people show me stuff I already know about I try to teach them about tangential things. Sometimes they're too slow to catch the shift.

          Sometimes I'm wrong (maybe your kid is into Primus and you showed him Mingus and he immediately filed it "jazz; boring") in thinking I know about something, but it's still there for re-evaluation.

          Maybe you're a pedant?

        • by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) * on Monday June 23, 2008 @07:10AM (#23901537) Homepage Journal

          superiority of written matter over video
          Part of the superiority, IMO, has to do with the time investment more than the medium.
          You can tell the difference between a document that's been rewritten and polished, verses something that looks like a hungover homage to Jack Kerouac written in Perl, on a cloudy day, after a bad breakup.
          Best wishes with the son.
    • by dodecalogue ( 1281666 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:28AM (#23900649)

      a bit tricky to work for an employer while going to college... oh lookie a business idea!

    • ... of each day and get it out the way.

      Multi-tasking is efficient when used appropriately.

  • by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <> on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:25AM (#23900363) Homepage Journal

    News at 11.

    • by mazarin5 ( 309432 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:58AM (#23900509) Journal

      Give him a break, he's 314!

    • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @04:11AM (#23900827)

      News at 11.

      People seem to think that geniuses are simply more intelligent than the rest of us, I hear talk of IQs of 200, 250 etc. Which is utter bullshit, there aren't enough people on the planet for that, never mind the validity of IQ tests. What you really see when you take a look at the life of a genius is damned near monomania. The drive, ability and desire to focus on a single thing for years, decades, to the exclusion of almost everything else. To the point that they finally see "the truth" or at least, closer to the truth than the rest of us who are more distracted by daily life.

      Not to say that geniuses aren't spectacularly talented people, obviously they are, but what really makes the difference is focus.


      • by ishmaelflood ( 643277 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @05:39AM (#23901163)

        Good call. I score some bullshit number on IQ tests (185, once, in a real one). I am smarter than the average bear, for sure, but... that bright and glinty ability to whizz through IQ tests is only vaguely related to my analytical success which is down to grim concentration and long, hard, thought. Quite why the shithead management persist in putting us in pods of cubicles so that I get the 'benefit' of background chatter is beyond me. Fortunately my sound cancelling headphones deal with that, albeit at the expense of giving me something more interesting than spreadsheets to entertain myself with.

        Clue for fuckwit managers- if your staff are interested in music and are truly listening to the Brandenburg concertoes, then they are not paying much attention to the screen in front of them. Bach is a mind sucking alien.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by ockegheim ( 808089 )
          "I have worked hard; anyone who works just as hard will go just as far." - JS Bach

 he wasn't a complete genius.
      • Actually... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @06:10AM (#23901293) Journal

        Before I start, yeah, I do subscribe to the POV that IQ tests are just a trainable skill, and thus measure only... how good you are at IQ tests. Plus, I don't think one number is anywhere near able to sum up the gamut of human skills and abilities and talents.

        That said, I do seem to recall that there _are_ differences in the brain wiring of different people. E.g., IIRC it was even linked here on Slashdot that Asperger's Syndrome causes neurons to form more connections and be much more reluctant to break old connections. E.g., they seem to have found a gene responsible for ADHD, which, again, causes the brain to work differently.

        And in the end, is it that big a surprise? How your whole body looks like, and how it works, is dictated by some proteins which are encoded by some genes. E.g., we already identified, say, the protein which is encoded differently for a human brain as opposed to a chimp brain. And sometimes seemingly unrelated proteins affect the various pathways and reactions. E.g., a broken MC1R doesn't just give you red hair, but also has effects including different fight-or-flight priorities and pain sensitivity.

        Because "God" doesn't seem to believe in neat, orthogonal, cohesive coding. Or rather, because we're the result of some random mutations that worked. If modifying another protein to fix the effect of the first works too, chances are you get that instead of fixing the first one. We're the result of some billions of years of spaghetti code and layers upon layers of hacks, that often address the symptoms instead of the real problem. We even have pieces of DNA that seem to be both code and data segment (very loosely using those terms, anyway.) We have deliberately self-modifying code, fer crying out loud. (That's how the immune system can match almost any foreign protein.)

        At any rate, there are a lot of genes at work there. There are mutations in every generation. There are recessive traits. Etc. So it's not that far fetched that some people's brains would be wired slightly differently.

        Whether that's good or bad, if up for debate. And, yes, IQ isn't measuring that. But you can't say that everyone has the same brain and only differs in how focused they are.

        Heck, even that focus itself seems to be often a result of genes. E.g., Asperger's Syndrome has a narrow focus of interest as one of its almost invariant symptoms. The ability to hyperfocus is right behind on that list. So even that goes back to genes and brain wiring, it seems.

        Basically, I dunno, I have no problem believing that some people _are_ born smarter. Again, it may not be measured by IQ, but I believe it's happening.

      • by Scrameustache ( 459504 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @09:03AM (#23902153) Homepage Journal

        What you really see when you take a look at the life of a genius is damned near monomania.
        I look at Leonardo Da Vincis' life, and what I see is a prolific artist, architect, engineer, etc, etc, etc.

        I think you're confusing genius with dedication.
        Either that, or his monomania was "using woodworks".

    • If you have ADD, you'll naturally be good at multitasking and this article does not apply to you.

      This article applies to those who have the new disorder, multitasking deficit disorder.

  • by NoobixCube ( 1133473 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:26AM (#23900371) Journal
    It's a reasonable statement to make, and I can agree with it, in general terms. Generalisations, while usually true, can't be applied to everyone. I actually find it harder to focus on one thing when there is only one thing to focus on. I can't even read a book without the dull murmur of a TV with the volume turned down just on the edge of my awareness. On the other hand, I can't concentrate on anything when there's an infomercial on...
    • I understand this; I find it oddly difficult to focus without something to also ignore.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      Yes, some of us are far more efficient [] when we allow our focus to stretch beyond one thing.
    • by MonoSynth ( 323007 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:36AM (#23900683) Homepage

      It can be applied to most of us, companies should be aware of that. Cubicles and open offices are default nowadays, so people can constantly drop by and ask things. Instant messaging and e-mail only make it worse.

      When I'm at work programming, I want to do just that. When my manager asks me about the state of things, I lose my concentration, have to write down some notes about what I was working on, answer his question, read my notes and try to regain my concentration. Sometimes it takes fifteen minutes or more to regain my concentration, most of the time I completely lose important work because I lost the idea or can't make sense of the halfway finished code I just wrote. A simple question (from his perspective) costs fifteen minutes or more of my time and could lead to ugly unmaintainable code.

      When companies just start to realise that most people can't multitask and change their corporate culture accordingly, overall productivity will increase.

      • by tachyonflow ( 539926 ) * on Monday June 23, 2008 @04:00AM (#23900783) Homepage

        Wow. It's good to know that I'm not the only one who tries to use the "push all registers to the stack" technique when a non-maskable interrupt is raised! It's also useful when I'm too tired to continue coding and have to go into "suspend" for the night...

        At one place I worked, we joked about our MTTI -- mean time to interrupt. But then people thought it was cute to swing by the cube saying, "Hey, I'm afraid I'm going to have to lower your MTTI..."

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        It typically takes me 10 minutes to store the state of where I was, 5 minutes to answer the 'quicky', and then 45 minutes to get back to where I was, in terms of train of thought.

        That adds up to an hour.

        So I switch me email off and turn my phone down.

        Sorry guys...

    • by amRadioHed ( 463061 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:49AM (#23900731)

      So you've got a short attention span. Do you really think that makes you as efficient as someone who has trained their mind to be focused?

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Ahh, grasshopper - is it really possible to train your mind thus?

        Short attention spans are quite common, especially among programmers - interruptions are the norm, and should be dealt with in a calm manner.

        Myself, I make the notes first, and if interrupted continue as if I was a ghost dog in the city.

      • by metlin ( 258108 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @05:48AM (#23901203) Journal

        Well said.

        I have never understood the people who claim to multi-task, because I've often observed that when they do multi-task, do so rather poorly, and perform poorly at all the tasks that they have to do. Why would you simply not take the time to focus on each one, and get it out of the way?

        If I'm doing something, my girlfriend often tries to interrupt me, but for the most part, I just tune everything else out and do the one thing that I want. She finds it hard to understand, but it's just the way I've been raised (and wired). Growing up, distractions were a strict no-no, and I'm quite thankful for that. If I'm at work, I turn IMs and emails off (the Blackberry remains turned on, though, just in case).

        The end result is that I find that it takes me a lot less time to do something than the people who claim that they can only multi-task. I have friends who are so much more better and so much more focussed at doing things, and the one thing that I can tell you is that they are all a lot more efficient at getting things done than me.

        Likewise, my ADD friends claim to be able to multi-task, but do a VERY poor job of actually doing it. Sure, you do ten things at the same time, but I could have done 20 things better, faster and more efficiently by focusing separately than you did ten without any focus or singular goal.

        Just my two cents.

        • by Aceticon ( 140883 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @10:15AM (#23903059)

          I've worked in reasonably extreme examples of both kinds of environments:

          1. Frequent interruptions, open-office noisy environment with lots of movement (Investment Banking, Software Development/Support in the trading floor)
          2. Few interruptions, quiet team-sized offices (IT Products, Software Design and Development)

          The productivity and work efficiency in the second kind of environment is several times (3 times or more) higher than in the first.

          This seems to be true not only for me, but also for my colleagues. Amongst other things, in noisy environments with frequent interruptions people seem to make more mistakes and be more likely to forget important things.

          From what I've seen, the most extreme cases of multi-tasking (crack-berry users) are also the people most likely to forget important things while dealing with unimportant ones.

    • by IAR80 ( 598046 )
      Damn it! I can't sleep without a TV!
    • by antirelic ( 1030688 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @06:46AM (#23901431) Journal

      Here is my complete speculative analysis on multi-tasking.

      Just take a look at human evolution. Do you think that being "extremely focused" is a really good survival trait? Being able to do more than "one thing" at a time would seem to be a much more advantageous, in the greater scheme of things, than being able to focus at the detriment of other things. Human beings are meant to multi-task. Staying alert for potential predators while gathering food seems like a top notch trait to carry on. Human beings are at the top of the totem pole not because we are physically superior, but because we are mentally superior. Our ability to out think more physically capable predators is not only because we are smart, but also because we are cognsaint of more than one thing going on at a time, and are better able to process that information.

      It seems more likely that the "genius" trait, while desirable for geek credit, is really not a trait that evolution seems to favor.

  • by techmuse ( 160085 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:27AM (#23900377)

    I have absolutely no problems with...

    hold on a minute...

    multitasking. It makes me...

    one second...

    much more efficient, because I can handle...

    sorry about this...

    many different tasks at once

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by saibot-k7 ( 1242596 )
      That's not multitasking: that's switching between tasks very slowly (unlike your processor which does it very fast). Multitasking is the equivalent of breathing and running (two or more things at the same time) - or having multiple processors in computer terms.
      • by techmuse ( 160085 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:52AM (#23900487)

        That's not multitasking: that's switching between tasks very slowly (unlike your processor which does it very fast). Multitasking is the equivalent of breathing and running (two or more things at the same time) - or having multiple processors in computer terms.
        Actually, what you are thinking of is multiprocessing, which is different from multitasking. Multitasking is switching back and forth between multiple tasks, each of which run for a fixed quantum before the next task switch occurs. Although this is typically done too fast to notice, the rate of task switching is not part of the definition of multitasking. Multiprocessing is the actual simultaneous execution of two tasks or threads, and is typically performed using distinct execution units, such as multiple processors, cores, or (as in the case of Intel's hyperthreading), subsets of pipelines.
        • by EdIII ( 1114411 ) * on Monday June 23, 2008 @04:10AM (#23900819)

          That was a very well thought out, cogent, and well structured answer. I feel smarter every time I read it.

          Your intelligence and ability to express yourself being well established, I would pose the following question to you....

          When I switch hands and gain a stroke is that not multitasking changing to multiprocessing and then back to multitasking?

  • by raving griff ( 1157645 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:28AM (#23900385)
    Apparently it affects memory as well. []
  • by mechaman ( 898770 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:29AM (#23900389)'s been found that most guys already have a great tool for all this mono-tasking, Selective Hearing.
  • by suck_burners_rice ( 1258684 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:30AM (#23900395)
    In other words, I should wipe my drive and install MS DOS.
    • by vikstar ( 615372 )

      If you have linux, yes. If you're using MS Windows, then no need. In addition, if you're using MS Outlook in MS Windows then it is a much better choice than MS DOS.

    • by RuBLed ( 995686 )
      Precisely, all you need to do now is migrate this DOS environment into several VM instances. Now you could increase your productivity while avoiding the detrimental effects...
    • by Urkki ( 668283 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:15AM (#23900583)

      Nah. There's a modern solution to this. Just get an X Windows window manager that can be configured to force maximized windows. If that's not enough for you, configure it so that it won't run more than one application at a time. If still not good enough (after all, with GUI applications, popups are kinda like using multitasking), just ditch X, remove screen (an application), and use only one virtual console. Possibly tweak the kernel so that suspend signals won't be delivered, if you're worrided you might get distracted by accidentally pressing ^Z.

      So just a little bit of tweaking, you can go all the way to MSDOS level of single-tasking with Linux! And if you need those MSDOS applications, there's dosemu too, so there's absolutely no need to use proprietary MSDOS directly.

      Just try to achive this with any modern Windows!

  • by harlows_monkeys ( 106428 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:38AM (#23900427) Homepage

    Quote from the article:

    Marois found evidence of a "response selection bottleneck" that occurs when the brain is forced to respond to several stimuli at once.

    I think the key here is forced. When I'm solving a problem or trying to learn something, I find that I am more effective if, after each noticeable success in my effort, I take a little break and do something else, such as read a Slashdot story, while my brain thinks about what I just learned or did. I'm much less effective if I have to work straight through on a long problem or learning task.

    In other words, I multitask fine if I've picked N tasks, that I can switch among freely, whenever I want to switch. However, if the tasks are forced upon me, or I have to switch on a schedule or in response to interrupts, such as phone calls, then productivity goes down.

    • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:51AM (#23900477)
      The other really dumb thing about the studies I've looked at is they don't consider the value of the interruption at all, only looking at the detrimental impact on the "primary" task. Responding to emails will obviously slow you down in finishing that report, but you will also stay on top of whatever issues were raised by the email - which in reality may very well be more important than the report. Even the dangers of cellphone driving have to be weighed against the value of the time saved. If safety were all that mattered we would all walk instead of driving.
      • You don't have the right to make that decision for me. If you're on the phone in your car while you're all alone 4-wheeling in the woods that's one thing. But if you're in the car right behind me, that's another. Your decision about sacrificing safety for a cell phone conversation is also about my safety too. That kind of decision cannot be made by an individual.

        • I agree that one should consider the potential effect on others when making choices, particularly with respect to safety.

          But you're argument is generally ridiculous, and I have trouble believing you don't already know that. By the "it could hurt others" standard we shouldn't be allowed to drive in the first place -- you would certainly be safer in your car if the person behind you not only wasn't allow to use their phone, but also wasn't allowed to drive at all when others are on the same road.

          As a society

          • Your belittling of the GP's post, and subsequent straw man argument, are completely unconvincing. The goal of the rules of the road are already such that if everybody followed them 100% of the time, the only accidents would be mechanical. Clearly, this isn't the case because neither drivers nor legislators are perfect and, in fact, in many cases are completely incompetent, but the roads are nonetheless safer with the rules we currently have than they would be without any rules at all.

            Your example of simply having no 2 cars being on the same road at the same time example is especially wrong. Consider the "2 second following distance" rule. Many people don't follow it, but if they did (and paid attention to the road), there would be very few fender benders. Here is where the pay attention to the road part comes in. The current laws don't matter at all if people aren't paying attention to the road, and this is why people shouldn't be allowed to use cell phones in cars. Talking/texting on a phone has been shown to reduce the attention of the driver to the road. If the law doesn't deal with people paying attention to the road, then there will be no safety on the roads at all, since all of the other laws depend so heavily on that one simply concept.
        • by houghi ( 78078 )

          I have a car radio that has bluetooth. That way I have still both hands free for a call. However when it becomes a call that I need to really concentrate on, I will call back or stop.

          It becomes like a conversation. The problem is not so much the calling, but the handling of the phone that is normally the real burden. Just as if you have an argument in the car or you are a lousy parent and can't control your children. (I know I wasn't allowed to misbehave in the car even on long trips. )

      • by MadKeithV ( 102058 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:52AM (#23900741)
        The value of most common interruption is practically never higher than the task you're currently working on. You already prioritized and scheduled everything correctly, so what you are working on right now is important.
        The additional time lost because you are out of the "zone" is also very significant - for programmers this time loss has been estimated to be 15 minutes beyond the time for the interruption itself. That means that if you get more than one e-mail, phone call or at-your-desk interruption per 15 minutes (Source: Peopleware), your productivity in your main task starts to approach zero.
        Yet another reason for ignoring these "immediate" interrupts is because they are often "urgent", but rarely "important". You should read Stephen Covey for more on these, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that urgent things that aren't important are dangerous to productivity, and should be ignored as much as possible.
        If it really is important and urgent and needs to interrupt you, then people will try again until you know it's important enough. Or you can arrange emergency channels (personal cell phone number) that should be used only when you really need to be interrupted. Just make sure that this channel is never abused for non-important, non-urgent communication.
    • We problem is not with multitasking/multiprocessing itself, but with our "conscious self" connecting to more than one data output at the same time.

      What you are doing is sending "batch programs" to your brain so it learns them. Very useful indeed.

  • Uhhh, well (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:43AM (#23900453)

    I think this is way too narrow. I can't really say since this was a fairly crappy writeup and not the original research itself, but just because in a narrow set of constraints multi-tasking equals less performance, doesn't mean overall it is worse. I think there's three main things not considered here:

    1) Just because you perform both tasks worse, doesn't mean it's less efficient. An example would be driving while talking on the cell phone. There's little debate that your driving skills are worsened when you do this, as you simply have less concentration to go around. Ok, fine, but that doesn't in fact mean it is detrimental to efficiency. If you need to drive somewhere that takes 20 minutes, and you need to set up something over the phone that takes 20 minutes, you save time doing both at once. Even if because you aren't concentrating as much on either it takes 25 minutes to complete both, you are still ahead.

    I realise with driving there is a safety consideration in this case, but I am talking overall about task performance.

    2) Many tasks involve waiting. There are plenty of things in work, particularly computer work, that involve waiting. You'll give input and have to wait before you can give it again. It is not efficient to just sit there and stare at the screen. It is more efficient to work on multiple tasks. You work on another task, and periodically check on the first one to see when it needs input (this would be similar to how an OS multitasks on a single processor). Yes, no single task will get done as fast but you'll get more done in a given amount of time.

    3) Sometimes you need to move away from something for awhile to be able to do better at it. I find this is true when I'm writing certain things. I can't just sit there and write the thing straight out. I can either stare in to space, or I can go ahead and do something else for a bit then come back to it. I'm not talking about needing an over all work break here, just that I need a bit to switch away and then come back. This is particularly true of editing. If I want to read over something I've written for errors, doing so right away does no good. I need to switch to something else for a bit, then come back.

    As a simple example of where I've seen multi-tasking work much faster due to tasks that don't require constant input was setting up some software in a lab. Our management system was broken and we needed some new software in a lab right away for a presentation. So I grabbed one of our student workers and had him come help. We'd each take a row of computers and start doing installs by hand. He did everything sequentially, sitting at one computer and doing all the steps until it was done. I multi-tasked, dancing back and forth between 3-4 computers at once all at different stages of the setup. I ended up doing over twice the number of rows as him.

    The reason was this was a perfect place to multi-task. The setup involved a fair bit of waiting on things before giving input, so rather than wait I'd go on to the next one. Thus the job got done quicker.

    • Re:Uhhh, well (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Archtech ( 159117 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:02AM (#23900533)

      An example would be driving while talking on the cell phone. There's little debate that your driving skills are worsened when you do this, as you simply have less concentration to go around. Ok, fine, but that doesn't in fact mean it is detrimental to efficiency.
      Unless you're in Britain, in which case it is detrimental to efficiency... as your ass will end up in a cell, because using a phone while driving is illegal.

      That's because it's deemed highly inefficient if you kill someone else who was minding their own business while you slightly increase your own productivity.

      • Yeah, but outside Britain we use those little things called headphones. You can wear it on your ear and speak without using hands.
        • Re:Uhhh, well (Score:4, Insightful)

          by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @04:06AM (#23900801)

          Those handsfree phone devices are still a distraction and impact the attention you pay to the primary activity on hand: driving.

          • by houghi ( 78078 )

            Yes, so is changing the station on your radio, selection of a new CD or talking to the person next to you.

            Perhaps you are one of those people who looks at statistics and say: if we drive X slower, we will save Y lives. Well, look at the end of the stats: when the speed becomes 0, so is the amount of deaths.

            So I say, speed up and let Darwin do its work. Within a few generations we will have speeding cars and people who will be able to react to those speeds and everyone will be a winner. As a compromise, I pr

      • It's only inefficient if the person you kill was doing something too -- if they were just sitting there on a bench enjoying the afternoon sun there's probably no loss to overall efficiency, other than the time you spend cleaning them off your car; if you can continue using your cell phone in the car wash you might still come out ahead.

      • Sigh (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @04:17AM (#23900851)

        I debated using that example because I knew some jackass would start crying about the safety aspect rather than what is pertinent to the argument. I am not advocating talking on the phone in a car, I am using it as an efficency example, since they used it.

        However, if you are unable to set emotion aside and evaluate it objectively then let's go for walking and talking on your phone. Again, you will find that one interferes with the other, you'll probably walk slower and such as you are thinking about your conversation as well as where you are going, you may have to stop to dial or press keys in response to auto prompts and such. That doesn't mean that it is going to be more efficient to get to where you are going, then pull out your phone and make your call. Despite both tasks suffering, there is still an overall gain.

        That is the point here. I'm not talking about safety, that's a separate issue.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      1) Just because you perform both tasks worse, doesn't mean it's less efficient.

      Right. What's the goal? Getting more work done, or getting a raise? If the boss values crap work as long as you can work on 5 crap things at a time, then that's what you do. You get your raise more efficiently. When the boss wants you to do one thing only, that's what you'll be told to do. It's his capital that's invested in the business, and there's no reason why you should help him use it more wisely.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Some of my best technical problem-solving occurs while pushing a lawnmower.
      I guess that's a time when I'm not being interrupted by the phone, email, IM,..

    • 1) Just because you perform both tasks worse, doesn't mean it's less efficient. An example would be driving while talking on the cell phone. There's little debate that your driving skills are worsened when you do this, as you simply have less concentration to go around. Ok, fine, but that doesn't in fact mean it is detrimental to efficiency. If you need to drive somewhere that takes 20 minutes, and you need to set up something over the phone that takes 20 minutes, you save time doing both at once. Even if b

  • by Amy Grace ( 1205236 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @02:48AM (#23900467)
    that many of my friends, and sometimes even myself, find it uncomfortable in genuinely quiet settings. While it is a useful skill to be able to keep track of more than one or two things at a time, it seems almost habit-forming. A good friend of mine seems to basically invent things to do so that he doesn't ever get "stuck" with one task at a time, which he says is boring.

    The most annoying thing I can think of is when I'm at my job or in labs at school, and people come at me with a bunch of different requests, all expecting me to drop everything and get it done 'like now!'. Yes, I can manage several things at once, but sometimes properly managing things means doing them one at a time, carefully. Providing it's not a pressing issue, I wish people would be okay with the answer 'I'm just finishing up my current task, I will get to the next one as soon as I'm done'.
    • by LS ( 57954 )

      the feeling of being uncomfortable in genuinely quiet settings is not unlike the anxious muddled tense feeling a smoker gets when he hasn't had a cigarette in a while....

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Chrisq ( 894406 )

      A good friend of mine seems to basically invent things to do so that he doesn't ever get "stuck" with one task at a time, which he says is boring.
      Like reading slashdot at work?
  • i spend far too much time online, typing up reports with rhythmbox, slashdot, and pidgion going in the background.
    but i dont even notice it all anymore, i just jump between things without thinking.

    i used to be able to focus on one task for a long time. a few years ago, i could go and paint non-stop for 12 hours straight and wonder where the time went. now after 2 hours, i am fighting boredom and i have to get up and walk around, and just do something else. i now find it impossible to do only one thing fo

  • As I type this... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by grrowl ( 953625 )
    I'm reading /. frontpage, listening to a George Carlin standup youtube video (R.I.P.), chatting to three people on two protocols and waiting for a reply to an SMS I just sent. Not really being very productive at all, unsuprisingly.
  • by Kuciwalker ( 891651 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:23AM (#23900627)
    Submitter gets a fail for not titling this "Multitasking Considered Harmful".

    For those that don't get it: []

  • by dido ( 9125 ) <> on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:26AM (#23900641)

    Paul Graham recently wrote an essay [] about a related topic just last May, on distractions. It seems that he even works by actually disconnecting his computer from the Internet while working, in order to reduce the amount of distraction that would come from use of the Internet, and using a separate machine somewhere else that had Internet access for those times when he really needs to do something online. It's a radical idea. Maybe it explains why I feel bit more productive while working from home, where Internet access can only be had by hooking my cellphone up to a special SIM card that has a data plan, and connecting to the Net via Bluetooth. With such awkward steps needed to get a working Internet connection, and with no coworkers to bother me, distraction is kept at a minimum. Whereas at the office the lawyer who's sharing our office space has a television permanently tuned to a news channel, I get distractions from coworkers up the wazoo, and a fast broadband connection which basically encourages me to read and post to Slashdot and engage in other diversions...

  • I find I am most productive when I am only working on one thing. I can focus all of my attention on it and wrap my brain around the subtle aspects of the problem at hand.

    The problem with task switching is that one has to dig back down into the task after every interruption. This wastes time.

    If I start to feel burned out on the thing that I am working on, I put it down and pick up something else. I forget all about the previous task and turn my focus on the new task.

    I also find that alternating between di

  • As Said By.. (Score:4, Informative)

    by BlueStrat ( 756137 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @03:46AM (#23900713)

    As said by Charles Emerson Winchester III:

    "I do one thing, I do it well, and I move on."

    What a great show MASH was. Sadly, judging by what's followed from the major networks in the years since, it seems to have been one of the last gasps of truly quality TV series.



  • by stainlesssteelpat ( 905359 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @05:28AM (#23901111)
    Just in, man stabs himself in mouth with BBQ fork instead of beer, while barbequeing. The dangers of multitasking,News at 8.
  • by jollyreaper ( 513215 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @07:38AM (#23901641)

    When I first started driving, it took all my conscious, active effort to pay attention to everything on the road and this is just driving in the sedate neighborhood. The interstate had me utterly intimidated for the first year. I would not have the radio on, not talk to passengers, was totally white-knuckled focused. As I got better at it, the process became automatic and I could drive, talk to people, and it didn't hurt my driving performance at all. If tricksy situations arise, I'll tune out on any conversation and be focused just on the road. Of course, many people screw up by devoting more attention to the conversation (or makeup, or food) than the road. Nothing irritates me more than the kind of people who feel they have to maintain eye contact with a passenger while driving. NO! ROAD! CONCENTRATE!

    People can juggle multiple low-level tasks. Walk or ride a bike while listening to a book on tape, get a big meal moving in the kitchen while singing along with music, just fine. A high level and low level task can be combined like driving and audio books. But it falls apart when multiple high-level tasks are competing. It's very difficult to, say, follow along with a TV show and write at the same time. There's no way in hell that the typical office multitasker gets anything done. These are the people you have direct conversations with and retain nothing because they're thinking about something else. My personal pet peeve, blackberries in meetings. STOP! There's no fucking way you're keeping up with what I'm talking about when you're typing with your thumbs. Check your berry to make sure it isn't a server calling for help and if it isn't, put the damn thing away and pay attention!

  • by curmudgeon99 ( 1040054 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @08:00AM (#23901737)
    This is a classic case of what's good for 88% of the population being exported to all people. In fact, if you are right-handed (88% of us) then your left-hemisphere is dominant and you do not benefit from multitasking. However, if you are left-handed (12% of humans), then your right-hemisphere (the image side) is dominant and it is perfectly acceptable for you to multitask. Why? The left hemisphere of the brain (the language side) is optimized to process linear sequential information. In right-handed individuals, the linear side is dominant. The left side is optimized to do one thing at a time. If a right-handed person is in the middle of a task and they break that off to do something else, they must return to the beginning when they resume the interrupted task. In left-handed people, the right-hemisphere (the image side) is dominant. That hemisphere is optimized to process visual-simultaneous information. Breaking off one task while in the middle of another task is possible. The left-handed/right-brained individual can resume where they left off, thereby making multitasking efficient. This is why, for example, we see left-handed people way over-represented in the presidential contests. Currently, both Barack Obama and John McCain are left handed. [] So, while I'm sure this article is statistically accurate, it glosses over some complexities that have only come to light in past few years.
  • by postbigbang ( 761081 ) on Monday June 23, 2008 @08:23AM (#23901851)

    Meyer and Friedman called it part of the symptoms of the Type A Stress Syndrome. It's eventual result is coronary heart disease from plaques via ACTH secretion. It causes time-urgency and stress, and the fight/flight syndrome.

    Multitasking is keenly sought because it also heightens brain activity, which some people crave. The downside is that it's really stressful, according to research done decades ago.

  • by hacker ( 14635 ) <> on Monday June 23, 2008 @08:44AM (#23901989)

    If you follow TFA links (which includes the sneaky commission referral from newatlantis), it leads to a book on Amazon called "The 4 Hour Workweek".

    If you travel that link and read the first review [], it includes some very accurate information about this global outsourcing issue we're all facing as we try to cram even more work into a finite span of time:

    "Finally, throughout the book Mr. Ferris keeps referring to the New Rich. Despite all his attempts at creating a new paradigm, it appears that the only difference between the New Rich and the Old Rich is that the old rich are capitalists that actually produce things that society needs, such as railroads and software, while the new rich sell things like unregulated nutritional supplements."

    Well put.

All seems condemned in the long run to approximate a state akin to Gaussian noise. -- James Martin