Audio Version:  SPaMCAST 167

To multitask or not to multitask, that is the question.  Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of mono-tasking or to take arms against a sea of trouble and by opposing do more…at least appear to do more.  Is the discussion of mono-tasking versus multitasking a tempest in a teapot, a true productivity killer or perhaps are we really discussing how we segment work?  Depending on how you define the word, I believe it is the later.  The problem is that like so many other words we have conflated a number of concepts into a broader idea.

In my opinion, there are three common scenarios that get conflated into the term multitasking:

  1. Actively doing two or more things at once (breathing and talking).
  2. Actively doing one thing while passively doing another (writing this essay while listening to the radio).
  3. Switching between tasks related, unrelated or loosely coupled (rotating between reading a book and updating Facebook).

The formal definition from the Merriam Webster dictionary defines multitasking[1] as “the performance of multiple tasks at one time.”  This fits scenario one and two (to a less extent) but definitely not three.

In the work place, true multitasking is rare.  It is not that we humans can’t multitask because we can multitask even using the strictest application of the definition of the word.   We are good at multitasking when it is a combination that includes an autonomic task (like breathing, heart beating or sweating) and something more active such as chewing gum or when it includes accidents such as the combination of talking on a cell phone while driving and running into the back of my car. The data shows that generally humans are not really very good at true multitasking in the workplace. Linda Stone noted in the Huffington Post[2] that people tend to stop breathing while they answer email. She even named the malady, email apnea. If you need more examples just reflect on the data concerning cell phone usage and driving or if data doesn’t work for you then try rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. Computers, on the other hand, are really good at multitasking and no matter the number of processors we have on our desktop we have not crossed that chasm to become full cyborgs yet.

The second scenario termed multitasking is a bit of a nuance: actively performing a task while passively performing another.  A classic example of this form of multitasking is reading a book while the radio is playing in the background.  In many cases this form of multitasking is an attempt to manipulate the work environment to aid focus.  The question of whether background noise affects concentration has been often studied.  In the January 2010 edition of the Scientific American, the magazine noted that background or low-level noise often disrupts people’s concentration[3]. Whether background noise helps or hurts concentration is probably one of brain wiring.   During the Christmas holiday I observed my son-in-law who can concentrate for hours but zones everything else out and my youngest daughter who requires multiple simultaneous inputs to get into flow state.  One for background noise and one against, maybe everyone is different.  At any rate, the data suggests that even on as basic a level as the having the radio on while reading, multitasking generally does not improve focus and efficiency.  By the way, if you are one of those that require background noise to concentrate, I recommend good headphones.


The final scenario generally conflated with multitasking is switching between multiple tasks.  This scenario is also known as fast-switching or serial mono-tasking.  Switching is in reality the juggling of resources to accomplish a set of tasks; at a macro-level you might be multitasking; however, on a micro-level you are mono-tasking.  The issue with this type of behavior is that juggling is not always easy even if you are good at it.  Inefficiencies are caused by both the queuing/scheduling of tasks and then the retooling that occurs when switching between tasks. During my research for this essay I found that in the brain, juggling multiple tasks is performed by mental executive processes that manage the individual tasks and determine how, when, and with what priorities they get performed[4]. The executive process coordinates activities so that the right outcomes occur, an analogy for what is going on inside of our minds is the air traffic control system.  The air traffic control system makes sure planes get where they are going with a minimum of delay and without two planes trying to use the same spot in the sky at the same time (bad). The coordination of tasks requires a level of overhead, just think about coordinating schedules for shared project resources if you need proof that overhead is required. However, more significant inefficiencies occur when a person switches between tasks.  Task switching experiments have shown a need for the person switching tasks to take time and mental resources to reorient. The reorientation tax (the amount of effort you need to expend to switch tasks) goes up with task complexity, lack of familiarity of the next task and the relative differences between the tasks.  Research has shown that task queuing (lining tasks up in order of precedence) so that the person doing the work can know what is coming and /or can influence the order they are to be done, can be used to reduce the impact of switching[5].  Reduction in the impact of switching can be mediated by separable executive control processes that prepare systemically for transitions between successive tasks[6].  The issue with the fast switching brand of multitasking is that in many cases the queuing of tasks is not as seamless as it should be which creates wait-states or multiple re-tooling situations because work does not flow as cleanly as it is diagramed on the Microsoft Project schedule (this is one of the reasons Reinertsen indicates that full allocation reduces efficiency).  Please note I am not comparing this type of multitasking to taking breaks between tasks to clear the “buffers” which has been shown to be valuable.

The data suggests that a mono-tasking environment that reduces interruptions is the most efficient work scenario[7]; however, the work environment is rich in interruptions.  Further according to Capers Jones, the information technology field has more named specialties than any other profession which means that individuals are spread across more project teams so they can practice their specialty.  Switching between projects leads to the switching tax we mentioned earlier.  Switching between tasks and projects is firmly etched into the classic project management body of knowledge based on 19th century manufacturing thinking (it’s now the 21st century).  We have even gone as far as to building the scheduling of shared resources into our project management tools which suggests that getting rid of the problem will not happen in the near future.  Today’s working environment leaves us with few options as methodologists.  Our goal must be to avoid switching when possible, minimize the impact when we can’t and then to decide to live with what we can’t change.


Next . . . A plan to address at least part of the problem



[4] Choices, Choices: Limits of the Brain, Anthrostrategist  Blog, August 28, 2011 (referenced December 17, 2011)

[5] Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4),763-797.


[6] Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4),763-797.


[7] Multitasking and Monotasking: The Effects of Mental Workload on Deferred Task Interruptions, Dario D. Salvucci and Peter Bogunovich, PDF,, December 12, 2011, p1