Multitasking? Not so Fast

Dictionary.com says that to multitask is “to perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” It might also be described as performing tasks sequentially, switching among tasks before the task at hand is finished.

Anyway, I’ve always have had a hard time accepting the validity of the asserted benefits of fast-paced multitasking in the information workplace. So, I have been doing a little studying on the subject and have found out some interesting information, most of it from Dr. Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California – Irvine. (Informatics – A broad academic field encompassing computing technologies and development in their diverse relations to the human and social worlds, including applications in science, social problems, and the arts. Wikipedia.) Here are just a few of Dr. Mark’s and her colleagues’ findings.

•      Observations of information workers reveal that they switch tasks (or interrupt tasks) on average every three minutes.
•       Most interrupted work is resumed on the same day, on average in 23 minutes and 15 seconds.
•      Information workers interrupt themselves 44% of the time; the rest of the interruptions were from external sources.
•      Studies show that information workers spend about 23% of their time on email, with one estimate revealing that people check email about 36 times an hour!
•      One study found that students reported checking Facebook on average seven times a day, averaging 26 minutes per day.
•      Stress is positively associated with the amount of multitasking.
•      Without email, people multitasked less and had a longer task focus.

Finally, various studies have shown multitasking to be consistently counterproductive, and, in certain cases (such as texting and driving), dangerous. Seattle Times.

So, the next time I walk up behind a young colleague checking Facebook or reading email on his or her personal information device and he or she tells me it is OK because he or she is multitasking, I can say “BullXXXX!” with authority and peer-reviewed academic references.
-VKM

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