The Multitasking Myth

If we do more at once we will get more done and get it done faster right?  This is the theory of multitasking.  But is the multitasking myth more than fact?  Does it really make you more efficient?

Single Threaded Processing

microchipIn computer terms, you can think of a thread as the timeline it takes to process a single command.  If you have a single processor in your computer it can process one thread at a time and only one.  Computers with multiple processors can process as many threads at one time up to the number of processors it has.

Now, let’s think of a computer with a single processor.  If you want to multitask the processor and give it five things to do at once.  It won’t do all of them at once.  Instead it will work on one of them for a little while than pause and start the other one and move back to the first then on to another and so on until all the processes have been completed.

The human mind is similar.  Our conscious mind processes one thing at a time.  That is, we devote our attention to one thing at a time.  True we do have a subconscious side that can work things while our conscious mind is busy but our conscious mind can be thought of in much the same way as the single processor computer.  So, if we try to multitask it really turns into do a little of each thing back and forth.


mathematicsSo why not do a little of each thing back and forth?  Won’t this help get everything done a bit sooner?  Maybe not.  When you work on one project for a while then move over to another then later move back to the first project you will likely need to re-acclimate to the first project.  That is, you need to remember where you left off and get familiar with the project again.

This re-acclimation adds time that would not have been there had you stayed focused on the first project through to completion.

Division of Attention

It also may be hard to devote your attention fully to the project at hand if you are bouncing between projects frequently.  You had been working on the first project for a while and switched tocalculation2 the second but maybe you catch yourself thinking about the first project occasionally while trying to focus on the second project.


Multitasking isn’t necessarily bad though.  Sometimes we need a break form our current project and welcome a new challenge.  It is just a good idea to keep in mind the potential pitfalls of over using multitasking and relying on this model too heavily to attempt to get more work done.

What are some of your observations of multitasking?  Do you have thoughts on how it can be best used?