Freitag, 25. März 2011

Multi-tasking - yes or no?

To do two things at once is to do neither. (Publius Syrus)

We all know the saying that women can multi-task and men cannot. And we all know that this is not necessarily true and probably also know more than one example for the complete opposite.
Personally, I am a bit torn about this. On the one hand, I have been multi-tasking since long before I ever heard of it (and no, I don't mean being able to chew gum and cross the street at the same time.) I like to be as efficient as possible, making the best use of my (and others') time and resources.
On the other hand, I often feel that it can be discourteous too. I'm sure you have had this happen to you before: you are talking with someone who is not even looking at you but rather glued to his mobile device, thumbs rapidly moving across the display, while nodding as if listening. But is he really? Talking on the phone while searching for something on the computer, for example, may be helpful if what you are looking for has something to do with the conversation. But if we are honest, oftentimes it doesn't. And that basically means I am only giving the person I am talking to part of my attention, which is something I don't like people doing to me, whether on the phone or in person. Yet I find myself doing it again and again.
Or what about constantly switching between two (or more) tasks? Not exactly doing several things at once, but in a way it is. Can we really give the individual tasks the necessary attention to do them well? Sometimes I wonder...
Interestingly, though, for me it is rare that I can work and listen to music without being distracted by it, but that may have more to do with the fact that I am a musician than with anything else, yet I know of many people who cannot imagine working without something going on in the background. I prefer silence, complete, if possible, and I know I function best when I have it.
I have come across several studies (sorry, can't remember where now) indicating that doing one thing after the other produces better results than multi-tasking, and that even the apparent time savings are lost again having to correct errors that would not have happened if the tasks had been tackled one at a time.
So what are your thoughts? Experiences? Habits? I'm sure there are tasks that are suited very well to be done together, but is it alway the best way?


  1. I used to think I was a multi-tasker, and was rather pleased with myself for being so, but for the last few years, I've found that I'm not. The older I get, the more simple I like things. I also prefer silence when I'm working, but then it depends on the type of work. When I iron or wash up or do other mindless jobs, I like watching stuff on the internet or listening to the radio. With writing it's different.

  2. Being a computer scientist I know that even PC's dont' do multitasking, but several single tasks are processed very quickly one after the other (Every process has a piece of the computing time). OK, modern PC's have more than one processor, so this means they can do more than one task at a time - but I have only one brain, so I can only do one thing.
    So I try to avoid doing several things at the same time, because it usally means being not really good at everything.

    And here some scientific proof ...