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!