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Multitasking vs. Background Processing


Ed. Note: Sorry for the lack of activity lately.  We’ve had the trifecta of big change around here requiring a shift in my focus: new baby, new job, and new house.  Which means my normal writing time (during kid #1’s Sunday naptime) is no longer tenable.  I suspect my writing will be spaced out for a bit while I find a new rhythm, but it’s not going to stop!

Click for photoIf you’re reading this blog, chances are you fall into one of two camps:

  1. You think you’re a great multitasker and thrive on juggling a million complex tasks at the same time
  2. You know better

Folks in camp #2 should probably just move on to reading something else (here are some recommendations!)  If you’re in camp #1, I’d love a demonstration 😉

Multitasking is a catch-all phrase that’s used for a lot of different work styles and concepts.  First a few words about what it isn’t.

Multitasking isn’t having different areas of focus (family, career, health, and so on).  Multitasking also doesn’t incorporate doing unrelated (or somewhat related) things at different times of the day (moving from email to meetings to writing to reading).

Both views of multitasking are fine in that they’re normal behavior; stuff you won’t get penalized by the efficiency gods for excelling at.  If you didn’t have different areas of focus, you’d be a robot, a dog, or a Perl script without any emotional attachment or ability to "let go" of a single area.  And if you weren’t able to switch tasks to some degree throughout the day, you wouldn’t be the least bit effective at work or at home.

We need to be flexible, but we also need to be focused.  And like most things in life, there’s a fair amount of nuance in there.

Multitasking as I’ll define it here is when you attempt to apply real brainpower to two or more tasks at roughly the same time.  Note that I didn’t say “during the same day” or reduce it just to "doing two things at once".  There’s a time and a place for doing two things at once… we’ll get to that.  Multitasking is really when you try and spread your brain too thin by having multiple destinations for your attention over a short amount of time.

The funny thing about multitasking is that it’s derived from a term we use in the tech industry to describe the ability to run more than one application (or process, service, etc.) at the same time.  The CPU isn’t really doing two things at once – just like humans, it can’t do that – it has a complex scheduling algorithm that gives the illusion that multiple programs are running in parallel (yes, we could also discuss multicore machines, but we won’t here).  So it’s switching from one thing back to the other fast enough that it appears like things are happening at the same time.

This is similar to humans as well.  We’re not really multitasking, we’re just context switching really fast.  Think about the last time you were interrupted in your office as you were deep in thought.  You stopped to pay attention to someone and your focus shifted.  Then when the conversation was over, you went back to what you were doing.  That’s quick context switching, not “multitasking”.  Whatever it’s called though, it will impede your efficiency.

This is the basis of the term switching costs.  It costs us mental energy each time we have to shift our focus, which results in an overall slowdown.  We think it comes for free but it doesn’t.  Each interruption or context switch reduces our efficiency on our main task by a measurable amount.

Now, background processing on a computer is just a form of multitasking (for instance, downloading a document while you edit another) but for us humans, it’s a far more efficient way of operating.

While it’s impossible to direct your attention to writing three documents at the same time, and it’s harder to finish something while engaged in context switching, you can effectively listen to classical music and write.  Or listen to audiobooks while you drive or run.  Or open a banana while discussing politics.  Or knit and listen to the news.  And so on.

The key is to limit the things you try and do at once to a single thing requiring your brainpower, and a single thing you can already do without thinking about it.  These are the things you do passively without spending any brain cycles on.

I’ll call this, just for fun, the 1+1 Rule of Multitasking.  1 cognitive task + 1 background task.  No more.

Try and do two or more things requiring cognitive load (like balancing your checkbook while taking notes on an important documentary movie) and you’ll either fail at one, or do one or both poorly and inefficiently.  Yes, you may still get them done – but it will take twice or three times as long and be lower quality. 

Try and do multiple background tasks while focusing your mind on one cognitive task and things start to break down as well.  Limit it to one and one.

Now, lots of people call multitasking a "myth"… but for me that’s just too strong of a word.  If you consider the layperson’s definition of multitasking as fast context switching, then it’s no more myth than people who have 3,543 emails in their inboxes who claim they’re on top of things ;)  People do it, they just don’t realize the costs.

People can context switch (or “multitask”) in only one of two ways:

  1. Very inefficiently.  Things will still get done but far less efficiently and at lower quality.
  2. Using background processing while maintaining undivided focus on one major task.

Ultimately you’re going to have to decide for yourself if the time you’re spending is efficient enough by thinking hard about where your focus lies.  It could mean the difference between getting things done quickly and well or taking twice as long and still not being proud of the result.

Your choice!

Written by Mike Torres

August 8th, 2010 at 1:02 pm