Archive for the ‘cognitive limitations’ Tag

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.

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