On Multitasking

After chasing a bunch of kids with cell phones off of his lawn, Kevin Drum has kicked off a discussion of “multitasking”, specifically about whether it’s merely a threat, or a positive menace. He points to an interview with Clifford Nass, a researcher who says his experiments show that nobody is any good at doing two things at once. John Holbo at Crooked Timber picks up the discussion and adds a few good points, and there are some others in the comments (CT’s comment section being one of the most civilized and erudite in blogdom).

In particular, I think John’s comment on satisficing is an important one:

Multitasking is not necessarily multi-learning but, in the most general sense, multi-doing. For that matter, watching the kids while cooking is obviously exactly like answering every email instantly while listening to a lecture: namely, you are likely to mess something up because you are distracted by the other thing. This may work out ok so long as the threshold of adequacy is low. I would have predicted the success story would be some class of multitaskers who are low-level satisficers. Trying to do many easy things, mostly not failing.

This is especially important in many work contexts. A lot of the “multi-tasking” that I do involves things like reading email or blogs during meetings or seminars. While it may be true that I am thus doing both of those tasks less efficiently than I otherwise might– I could power through a lot more email in my office with the door closed, and I’d learn a lot more in meetings and seminars if I didn’t have net access– the net result may still be an improvement. If the meeting is a complete waste of my time, then inefficiently dealing with email during the meeting is a better use of my time than giving my full attention to the meeting for an hour, and waiting until later to deal with my email.

That’s the thing that a lot of these discussions miss– not all tasks are equally important, but some unimportant tasks are mandatory. Doing a mediocre job on an unimportant task while simultaneously doing a mediocre job of something more useful may very well be an improvement over doing an excellent job of an unimportant task, and later doing an excellent job on the more useful one, at the cost of things like sleep or family time.

I’m also a little dubious about the psychology studies, as if often the case with psychology studies. While I don’t doubt that most people think they’re better at multitasking than they actually are– simply because nearly everybody thinks they’re better at whatever they do than they actually are– I’m not sure that doing highly artificial tasks in a psychology lab really gets at the important thing here, which is a question of overall efficiency at practiced tasks. That is, people who spend a lot of time doing two things at once may very well be better at them than other people not because of any innate difference in their brain traceable to some cognitive skill that allowed their distant ancestors to evade lions on the savannah umpteen thousand years ago, but because they spend a lot of time doing those two things together, and thus have practice at doing them.

Of course, I say this because I spend most of my time doing multiple things at the same time. Unlike Kevin, I have music or the tv on in the background (sometimes music on the tv, even…) more or less constantly. I actually find it distracting to not have some sort of patterned noise in the background. If I try to work in a quiet house, every tiny little noise– creaks of the house settling, dogs barking outside, people walking by on the street talking– jars me out of whatever I’m doing (unless I’ve previously had time to get really deeply engrossed in a book or something). When I have music playing, it drowns a lot of those little noises out, so I’m not interrupted as much.

Now, it’s true, this hasn’t been scientifically validated, and is just my opinion of my own operating style. Such things are notoriously unreliable, and it may well be that if put to the test, I would turn out to be more productive in silence than with music playing. But then we come back to John’s point– I’m very happy with the way that I work now, and my overall efficiency hasn’t really been an issue in my career. It might be that I could be more efficient than I am, but my current level of efficiency is good enough, and I’m happy with it, so I feel no need to change.

None of this, of course, changes the fact that it’s rude to interrupt a face-to-face conversation to check email, or whatever. I try not to do those things (even if my fingers do twitch toward the smartphone every time it beeps), not entirely successfully. But that’s a question of etiquette, not science, and– ooh! shiny thing!

Comments

  1. #1 marciepooh
    April 21, 2011

    I usually listen to music while I work (sometimes a tv show) for a similar reason as you. A lot of my work is rather tedious data collection and I’m easily distracted from it. Music seems to give the ‘ooh shiny thing’ part of my brain something to do while another bit continues with the not so interesting task of the moment. When I really get into whatever I’m doing, I stop noticing the music.

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    April 21, 2011

    I sometimes listen to music when I’m working, but it has to be music without words. (Since I’m a big instrumental classical music fan, that’s not a stretch for me.) Even then, sometimes I have to turn it off as I feel the need to hyperfocus.

  3. #3 Kate Nepveu
    April 21, 2011

    I’ve never really been clear on how much of that music you actually _hear_. The volumes you prefer suggest that you are listening, but when I’ve got music on as background noise to working I prefer it much quieter because either I am concentrating and I don’t hear it, or I’m trying to concentrate and I don’t need the distraction of lyrics replacing the distraction of dog snuffling or you reading to SteelyKid upstairs or whatever.

    Or is this just my having more sensitive hearing than you again?

  4. #4 Chad Orzel
    April 21, 2011

    I’ve never really been clear on how much of that music you actually _hear_. The volumes you prefer suggest that you are listening, but when I’ve got music on as background noise to working I prefer it much quieter because either I am concentrating and I don’t hear it, or I’m trying to concentrate and I don’t need the distraction of lyrics replacing the distraction of dog snuffling or you reading to SteelyKid upstairs or whatever.

    It’s a little tough to describe. I do sort of hear it, but not all that distinctly. When I’ve got new purchases on shuffle play, dozens of songs will fly past without me particularly noticing them, unless they’re exceptionally good or bad. This means it takes a couple of weeks to rate new music.

    I can definitely distinguish between music that I like and styles I don’t care for, though. And it’s got to be loud enough that I can actually hear all of it, so it doesn’t completely fade into indistinct mumbling plus a tiny bit of whatever’s mixed loudest. And people talking doesn’t work nearly as well.

  5. #5 Sherri
    April 21, 2011

    It’s possible there’s a different age-related effect going on other than the ‘young people grew up multi-tasking’ one. I find that the older I get, the less tolerant I am of other distractions. I used to regularly have music on when I worked, or read and watch television, or just have the television on in the background (to really date myself, MTV when it used to show music videos, and later CNN.) Now, I can’t stand it. I can’t even read something lightweight and watch something lightweight on TV, and my TV is never on unless I’m sitting down to watch a particular show (TiVo rules!)

    I’m 49, and I don’t know if it’s age-related, or whether I’ve gotten used to spending a lot of time at home alone and quiet or what, but noise in particular is very distracting to me.

    It’s also fascinating to think about all this and remember that I came through high during the educational fad of ‘open classrooms’ – no walls.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    April 21, 2011

    I make a distinction between background music (i.e., I can have it on while doing light reading or certain routine work tasks) and listening music (i.e., if I put it on I should expect not to do anything else). This distinction is orthogonal to the classical vs. popular or instrumental vs. vocal distinctions. Bach makes good background music, as does Paul Simon, but Aaron Copland and Pink Floyd are definitely listening music. It’s hard to enjoy Copland or Pink Floyd if you’re not paying attention, because there are subtleties that are key to appreciating the pieces, whereas with Bach or Simon, the subtleties are there if you are listening for them but are not essential for enjoying their music. I do have to listen closely to an album the first one or two times I play it, as some commenters on the other post have noted.

    I’m with you on noticing the exceptionally good or exceptionally bad songs. I have a vague idea (so far not tested) that three- and four-star songs are more likely to make good background music than five-star songs. That’s because a five-star song tends to draw me in–if it didn’t, I wouldn’t have given it a five-star rating. Likewise, if I rate a song lower than three stars, it’s because I find something annoying about it (since my music library has always been smaller than my iPod capacity, I have never had to weed out the One Star Playlist from Hell).

    I’m also with you on thinking that people talking doesn’t make for good background noise if I’m trying to get work done. Much too distracting, in a way that song lyrics aren’t.

  7. #7 stripey_cat
    April 21, 2011

    I find that if I’m havnig trouble concentrating on a relatively simple task, adding knitting or singing along to music I know well actually reduces my distractability: I can’t keep accounts, sing and daydream at once (or watch a film, knit and daydream), so I only do the first two. Whereas if I try to only do the assigned task, I may spend a lot of time staring out of the window and thinking about cooking dinner. I did get into a lot of trouble at school for reading novels or doing homework for a different subject in class; it particularly offended several teachers that I’d also be taking accurate notes.

  8. #8 Art
    April 21, 2011

    One aspect you might be missing is that the meetings might not be particularly productive and gripping because over time people know everyone there is multitasking and unlikely to demand, or appreciate, any effort to be prepared or otherwise provide the sort of material that might make the meeting productive.

    The whole multitasking approach spreads to everything and becomes the standard. People wonder why we fail to connect and feel engaged.

  9. #9 Taylor M.
    April 22, 2011

    My thought are probably pretty similar to some of the other commenters here. I love having music on when I do specific tasks:

    -Work in the lab with a protocol I’m very familiar with.

    -Repetitive tasks such as processing data on the computer.

    -Solving certain kinds of problems. Undergrad was more suited to listening to music while solving homework problems; not so much in grad school.

    But there are other times when I’ve found a significant decrease in my ability to think clearly when I have music on:

    -Reading articles/journals.

    -Writing

    -Trying to really think about ‘abstract’ problems in my research.

    I’ve tried listening to music while doing all of these tasks and I’ve noticed significant performance drops when I do. Sometimes, I’ll stop listening and all of a sudden the solution comes to me. It’s like my brain had the answer but it couldn’t get it past all the auditory signals.

    I’ve also tried watching Netflix while doing some of my more menial tasks. It works to, but I wind up only half watching the show and half focusing on my work. It’s all a trade off between what we enjoy doing, what we should be doing, and how much drudgery we’re willing to accept.

  10. #10 Alan
    April 23, 2011

    My other half used to constantly tell me that men can’t multitask. The retorte that finnaly shut her up was “Yes, but I can focus”.

  11. #11 Markita Lynda
    April 24, 2011

    Non-intrusive music can help calm the secondary commentary that usually distracts from the task at hand, and thus aid concentration.

  12. #12 Sabrina
    October 2, 2011

    I multitask with a lot of things that I do. Just an example of the multiple ways I multitask would be watching TV and being on the computer the same time. But I feel like that it is almost impossible to multitask with the reasoning of that I pay attention to only one of the things that I’m doing if I’m multitasking. Like when I listen to music and do my homework simultaneously, I zone in on the music, listening to the beats and words, and then I come to the conclusion that I was reading the same paragraph or completely stopped writing. After a while of not getting anything done, I have to turn off the music and focus on school work.

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