The question has been asked many times before…
“Is it possible for people to multi-task?”
Productivity experts generally agree, humans just aren’t made for multi-tasking. Yet many people claim they are great at it. We even see job descriptions with qualifications like: “seeking someone that can prioritize and multi-task effectively.”
In order to have an opinion on the matter, it’s important we first understand the definition of the word. The term “multi-tasking” comes from modern computer lingo describing technology that processors have gained so that multiple tasks can be completed (seemingly) “at the same time”.
With the invention of the first computers, work primarily executed in discrete tasks. Each task needed to wait for the previous to complete before the processor could load the next to execute.
A visit to the motor vehicle office will be a crushing reminder of this. You wait patiently until your number is called. When it’s your turn, your request, regardless of how complex it is, gets the undivided attention of your agent. After you license is renewed, you are on your way, and the next number is called. This way processing is designed to be fair, effective and minimize human error.
With the evolution of modern computing, we don’t have the same limitations as we do in the “human world”. Modern processors offer more scale and efficiency than people, with almost zero error too.
However, the term “multi-tasking” is somewhat of a misnomer to us humans. Computer processors don’t actually execute tasks “at the same time”. Rather, tasks are still executed individually, but the processor allows a task to efficiently “interrupt” an existing task that is waiting for something else to happen. During this waiting period, the second task is able to borrow the processor’s time and execute. When the original task is ready to resume again, it must wait for any current tasks to complete. It will then borrow time back and complete itself.
To the end user, all of this task “switching” is done so quickly, it appears as if it’s all at the same time. The truth is, processors are just extremely efficient at switching between these computer tasks.
Here’s a modern example: you walk into a coffee shop and order a cup of coffee. The barista is working on another drink order, but while the beans are grinding, he makes your drink and you’re on your way. He then finishes the first drink and everyone is happy. One could argue this talented barista made two drinks at the same time; however, we know semantically this isn’t really the case.
So when it comes to human multi-tasking, the question still stands: “Is it possible for us to multi-task?” The answer, yes definitely, it just depends on the types of tasks we are switching between.
It’s All About The Switching
Processors are designed to be extremely efficient at switching quickly between tasks. They are so efficient…the experience to the end user appears like things are happening at the same time, but we know now, that’s not technically the case.
The coffee shop example is a great one for comparison. For a barista, switching between two or more similar, routine tasks is totally feasible. Another example is making dinner. Cooking 3 or 4 things at the “same time” requires a skill in switching between doing dozens of individual things, one after another (rather than all at the same time). The tolerance for little bits of error is acceptable as well.
As professionals, we are typically engaged in more complex tasks that require focus and deeper, analytical thinking. This analytical thinking requires a longer “ramp up” time and therefore does not lend itself well to this “fast switching”. Our jobs also generally have less acceptance for errors and therefore require extra attention to detail. There is good research that shows the more complex a task is, the more that switching between them will cause a loss in productivity.
So, while we have been led to believe that multi-tasking is a desirable skill in the professional world, the resulting loss in productivity leads many to abandon this strategy as a means to “get more done”.
A Case for More Time just… Thinking
Before we get down on ourselves for being terrible multi-taskers…we need to recognize what our true strength is. Our brains were simply not designed for switching; they were designed for deep, analytical and creative thinking. This is our sweet spot. These days, we don’t spend nearly enough time dedicated to using this super-power.
Over the years, we’ve created a culture of instant gratification…one that rewards quick responses, often valuing immediacy over completeness or creativity. This go-go mentality is causing people to fall short of of our human potential to develop new ideas. We go from meeting to meeting in which we are interrupted dozens of times with text/instant messages, email alerts and more. At the end of the day, what have we accomplished? Is our badge of honor one of simply ‘being busy’.
I’m making a case that we need to build a new culture. One centered around the values teamwork and creativity. One that rewards better results, not just faster answers. We need to set aside time in our day dedicated to thinking and creativity. Some would argue, “getting actual work done”. This is what differentiates us from computers and will continue to evolve us, solve world problems and create a future rich for generations to follow.