Only Computers Multitask

by Margaret Lukens, New Leaf + Company LLC

A recent job posting on Craig’s List sought a customer relations specialist for Vertical Response, “one of the best places to work in the Bay Area”. Among the job requirements: “Candidates must be able to multi-task…”

Perhaps they should hire a computer.

Decades ago, the latest technique in time management was “multitasking.” It seemed like a great idea. Think how much more efficient we could be if we would do two things at once!

The reality, though, is that the human brain cannot literally do two things at once. Like an air traffic controller that cannot land two planes on the same runway simultaneously, but must give clearance to land sequentially or risk disaster, the human brain can accommodate just one task at a time. When faced with two tasks, our brains must switch between them. That switching takes time. It turns out that because of the added switching time, attempting to “do two things at once” takes longer than focusing on one task until completion, then the other.

The American Psychological Association noted the mounting research that makes this point when they wrote in a 2001 press release, “… for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar. They got “up to speed” faster when they switched to tasks they knew better, an observation that may lead to interfaces designed to help overcome people’s innate cognitive limitations.”

Companies may value employees who are versatile, easily turning from one task to the next, and who can tolerate frequent interruptions, and this is almost certainly what the job posting intended to convey.

If employers really wants better productivity from their work team, they would do well to reduce interruptions to the greatest extent possible, then give workers the tools to minimize the time needed for switching. Unless they’re employing only computers.

Do you multitask, or try to, at home or at work? How does it work for you? Join the conversation here.


4 comments so far

  1. Debbie Jordan Kravitz on

    Despite the evidence you mentioned in your post, I think many busy people still view multi-tasking as a valuable skill. Even though as a Professional Organizer I know better, as someone always on the go it’s tempting to try and do several things at once (usually causing more stress and errors, though!)

    I think on some levels, multi-tasking is OK. But the key to successful multi-tasking is when one of those tasks is more automatic (watching tv while folding laundry, eating breakfast while reading the paper, answering email while the washing machine is running).

    Great post, Margaret!

  2. Jane Campbell on

    Right right right. But people resist this one. Sure you can drive and talk on the cell phone, but if there are hazards to either task–backing construction trucks or touchy subjects being discussed–your chances of slipping up are automatically multiplied. Follow the plot of House, M.D. AND sew on a button? Not without rewind!

  3. John Trosko on

    There’s got to be a balance between a multi-tasking personality and a non-multi-tasking personality.

    It’s VERY annoying to work closely with someone who is a single-focused task person. You cannot interupt them, and I have gotten barked at for throwing them off-task even for a few moments when I needed something. This was in a shared office environment. For this reason, I find that they are not necessarily people-pleasers. However, businesses must love them, because they start and finish projects.


  4. Janine Popick on

    As a customer service representative at VerticalResponse you must be able to listen to a customer’s issue on the phone while investigating what the particular issue is online. You must be able to have a live chat window open to make sure you know a customer is beginning a chat, while answering another customer in an email. You must be able to listen to a customer while finding an answer to their question in a knowledge-base. We’ve found that people who cannot do multiple tasks like this should not apply. We have a great team that CAN do all of these things and do them well. Therefore we think we’ll keep “multi-tasking” as part of the post on Craig’s list. It has worked for us this far. Thanks for the thoughts.

    I can assure you, the wonderful folks that answer phone, chat and email at VR are just that, not computers:-)

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