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Communications Science

Multitasking Makes You Stupid and Slow 551

Reverse Gear recommends a long and interesting article over at The Atlantic in which Walter Kirn talks about the scientific results that support his claim and his own experiences with multitasking: that it destroys our ability to focus. "Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires — the constant switching and pivoting — energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we're supposed to be concentrating on... studies find that multitasking boosts the level of stress-related hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline and wears down our systems through biochemical friction, prematurely aging us. In the short term, the confusion, fatigue, and chaos merely hamper our ability to focus and analyze, but in the long term, they may cause it to atrophy."
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Multitasking Makes You Stupid and Slow

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  • I'd half agree (Score:5, Interesting)

    by n2rjt ( 88804 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:18PM (#22203060) Journal
    I always thought multitasking made me slow, but more able to see alternative solutions. Sometimes a solution for task A comes from task B.
    • by Skuldo ( 849919 ) <skuldo@ g m a i l . c om> on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:20PM (#22203070) Journal
      No my friend, you've always been, and always will be slow, stop fishing for excuses!
    • I must be a little slow or missing a meme or something... Can someone clue me into why parent is flamebait so I don't make the same mistake? Parent seems to make a perfectly logical comment.
    • by MOBE2001 ( 263700 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:03PM (#22203376) Homepage Journal
      I agree with the author (Walter Kirn) of the article. Multitasking is so time consuming that the brain relies on the cerebellum (little brain) to handle a lot of routine tasks (maintaining posture, walking, standing, blinking, etc...) while the conscious cognitive areas of the cerebral cortex focus on an important task (e.g., talking, thinking, reasoning, planning, etc...). People with cerebellar lesions are known to speak in a halting stacatto-like manner. The reason is that Broca's area (the part of the brain that produces speech) is constantly being interrupted because the brain's motor cortex has to momentarily stop what it's focusing on in order to attend to the routine tasks that a healthy cerebellum would handle automatically. So multitasking is such a big problem that the cerebellum contains more neurons than all the other areas of the brain combined but it cannot do everything because it's a direct sensori-motor automaton. That is to say, it cannot plan or predict phenomena, so it is limited. Only the most primitive animals lack a cerebellum.
      • by Qbertino ( 265505 ) <> on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:51PM (#22203676)
        It is also said - by esotherics and mysticists - that the cerebellum is the part of the brain that prophets and seers have learned to use 100% on command. The Bodi-Tree under which Budda sits is supposed to be a symbol of the cerebellum and have a simular structue with its branches and leaves, and thus represents enlightenment. If you read about the prime goals in Zen Buddisim ('thoughtless thinking', 'reasonless acting' etc.) you get the impression that it does involve a superior flexibility in activating and de-activating cognitive functions of the brain.
        I practice Aikido, and the most difficult part of it is not to have your cognitive brain interfere when you're exectuing a technique against an opponent (or two or three ...). It's what you practice in such Arts. Thus all the meditating and all that. It's really nothing religious - it's simply training your mind in the very same methodic and well-planned manner you train your body.
        • by jeepien ( 848819 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @10:32PM (#22204222)

          "It is also said - by esotherics and mysticists - that the cerebellum is the part of the brain that prophets and seers have learned to use 100% on command. The Bodi-Tree under which Budda sits is supposed to be a symbol of the cerebellum and have a simular structue with its branches and leaves, and thus represents enlightenment."

          This seems to tacitly presume the old urban legend that there are vast areas of the brain that most people don't use, which has been widely debunked. []

          It also seems to suggest that Chinese philosophers of, say, no later than the 7th century CE had a substantial knowledge of the physical structures of the brain as well as an understanding of the anatomical mapping of brain areas to their specific functions. This is a concept that, in the first place, wasn't suspected in Europe until the late Middle Ages and, in the second place, continued to be rejected by Chinese medicine long after that, in favor of such concepts as energy meridians, and so forth. I think it's more likely that since almost any nerve structure resembles, at least superficially, almost any tree, the symbolism is probably a modern back-formation.

          I don't doubt that you're correct when you credit the cerebellum with helping coordinate martial arts techniques by encapsulating complex motions at a lower layer of organization than the conscious mind. But these are motor skills. The same effect occurs when one learns to ride a bicycle. As long as maintaining control is a conscious act it is nearly impossible. Once it becomes unconscious it is trivially easy. But stretching this point to apply to "prophets and seers" is, as you have noted, fairly esoteric and mystical, rather than scientific.

          • MOD PARENT UP (Score:5, Insightful)

            by martin-boundary ( 547041 ) on Monday January 28, 2008 @12:06AM (#22204704)
            I would add the following: Given that at the time the Buddha statues were first built, people had no idea that the brain is the organ responsible for thinking (rather than the heart, or the stomach, or the soul etc), it's therefore revisionist nonsense to claim that the Bodi-Tree is a symbol for the cerebellum.
          • by rhakka ( 224319 ) on Monday January 28, 2008 @12:18AM (#22204762)
            what's interesting, is the precepts of many martial arts are explains in an "esoteric and mystical" way (chi, an explanation I have always hated), and yet a large majority of them have come to be verified, not debunked, by modern science... even though the precepts were developed long before modern physics or biology. While the scientific method may not have been used, that does not mean their knowledge was wrong in essence.

            that is not to say that they are all correct presumptions. However, in the case of "energy meridians", of which I am also a skeptic, there does remain the fact that acupuncture is an AMA-approved treatment for several ailments now... even though it cannot be explained with our current understanding, even by the placebo effect. In general, I do not find it incredible that early eastern understanding of many things was far beyond what one would expect given a lack of scientific rigor... they would often have the "right idea" explained "strangely". don't mistake my lack of conviction that it is all "fakery" make you think I am an advocate for either a chi or meridian based explanation for any kind of phenomena... but neither am I going to dismiss and ignore it all when it has worked for thousands of years to some degree at least, without a serious look.

            I am not a big proponent of the imagery representing a "cerebellum" though (the same physical forces that create leaf/tree structures create everything else... similarities are inevitable). And I fully agree that many of the "feats" of martial arts is simply motor reflex training and conditioning. However, the mental discipline taught by many arts does eventually allow for a state beyond mere reflex, where you can invent new maneuvers and react in ways outside of your reflex conditioning, with something that is both conscious and also unconscious.. that is, just conscious enough to direct the overall intent and action, and simply "allowing" that action to come to pass rather than executing it consciously. It's a fine line, to be sure, but I think a significant one.

            It's very similar to being "in the zone" with any sport, challenge, etc. You are not mechanically producing actions you have rotely programmed into your muscles or mind. Some part of what you are doing is that.. and some is still conscious, but without disturbing your ability to "unconsciously" make your intention happen, even when your intended maneuver is nothing you have practiced, or is a combination of several practiced movements broken down and reassembled in a new way.

            That, I think, is what the OP is talking about. Perhaps it's not "calling 100% on the cerebellum", but it is definitely a different state of mind than normal, that allows for much faster and truer reaction speed to any given situation when "active". and the better you are, the more you can "turn it on" at will. Having reached that state only by accident, I can say it's not surprising that people tend to reach for anything they can to explain it, and that any attempt at explanation might sound a little weird to non-practitioners, but they are on the mark with noting that it's not just reflex at least and is something much more interesting. something we have not articulated in the west with our scientific predilections yet, and something that the eastern descriptions of which leave me unsatisfied as well.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )
              It's not surprising at all that non-scientific approaches get some things right, occasionally. The ancients figured out very well that things fall when you hold them in the air and then let go. Of course they were invariably wrong about why, and for the longest time they thought that heavier things fall faster.

              Some pre-scientific medical treatments might actually work, sort of, as well. But more either don't do anything, are actively harmful or are hammers looking for nails.

              Science is, among other things
              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by rhakka ( 224319 )
                absolutely; however, that doesn't mean anything pre-scientific is simply imagination. Science moves very slowly. its surety is nice, but being able to function in a sphere outside of certainty... maintaining curiousity as well as skepticism... is useful.

                to go back to acupuncture; you can poo-poo meridians, and I personally think it's wrong. But science still hasn't come up with anything better to explain its functionality yet. So the choice is, use something that works to some degree or don't use it a
              • In an atmospheric environment, heavier items do indeed fall faster. try dropping a sheet of paper and an equivalently sized piece of sheetmetal if you don't believe me. Hell, some items are so light that they don't fall at all, like balloons.
          • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Monday January 28, 2008 @03:38AM (#22205630)
            Revisionist mysticism!

            Everybody respect the awesome wisdom of the ancients, now that it's been "reinterpreted" to agree with the tacky knowledge of our time.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 27, 2008 @09:10PM (#22203762)

        Only the most primitive animals lack a cerebellum.
        I was with you until this line, but I don't see why you bring the music industry into this...
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ehrichweiss ( 706417 )
        I haven't RTFA yet but there was a study I think a couple years ago where they determined that women multitask magnitudes better than men. If Kim's study was mostly of men then he might be onto something, otherwise I think someone needs to check their data a bit better.
      • by onescomplement ( 998675 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @09:40PM (#22203924)
        Here's an interesting data point for you. I type about 15-25% faster if I wear earplugs. When I tune out the noise it shuts off some fundamental and unwanted feedback loop, which was probably useful when I learned how to type but now not so.

        Also, some stutterers benefit by _not_ listening to themselves speak.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by hazem ( 472289 )
          I'd add to that with my own anecdote. I've noticed that when I'm driving and traffic suddenly gets more complicated that I automatically reach down and turn off the radio.

          Yet, when I'm driving in "boring" conditions, I can hardly go more than a minute or two without finding that I've reached down to turn on the radio. If I consciously try to resist turning on the radio (after stopping my hand in midway to the radio a few times), and I'm successful, I find that I eventually start singing or talking to myse
        • by Mex ( 191941 ) on Monday January 28, 2008 @01:38AM (#22205148)
          How does age work into it?

          I remember being able to study and read books in high school while blasting Metallica through my headphones. Now, at 27, I can't seem to concentrate on anything without total silence.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward
        You clearly don't know what you're talking about.

        The cerebral and cerebellar cortices perform very different tasks. The cerebellum is a much more primitive part of the brain, though it may have 50% of the brain's neurons. If "the most primitive animals" were to lack part of the brain, it would much more likely be a cerebrum, or at least a large one. One of the things that's different about humans is the massively increased size of the cerebrum -- supposedly giving us the ability to reason and whatnot.

        The ce
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Main Gauche ( 881147 )

      "Sometimes a solution for task A comes from task B."

      And you need to be doing A&B simultaneously in order to make the connection?!

      I'm going to have to agree with the others: moderators are all multitasking.

  • A ha, so that is how Microsoft managed to brainwash everyone into running Windows!
  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:24PM (#22203108)
    I find it funny that so many people think they multitask well, even when it's obvious (watching them) that it's not true at all. My boss comes to mind - we were having a discussion where I brought up one of the previous studies showing that people just don't multitask well. He said something like "it's true most people don't - fortunately I'm one of the rare people that can handle doing several things at once". Thing is, it's obvious to all of us in our group that he has trouble finishing anything; but who's going to say that to his/her own boss?
    • by Xelios ( 822510 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:32PM (#22203162)
      A lot of people have the misconception that multitasking is simply being able to do two or more things at once, like being able to listen to music and write a report, or drive a car and talk on a cell phone. Sure it's possible, and most people can do it, but your performance in both tasks will take a hit for it. Research shows that time and time again.
      • by Sanat ( 702 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @09:17PM (#22203812)
        I was driving around the bypass in Columbus the other day... driving in the next to fastest lane maintaining a speed about 70 mph which is what the traffic was flowing.

        I could see in my rear view mirror a SUV that was cutting in and out of traffic moving very fast. I respect others that are in a hurry... happens to all of us at times... anyway the SUV was ready to pass me and suddenly it slowed to match my speed exactly right beside me... thus blocking any escape path i might need.

        I looked over to see why a person would slow from 85 to 70 so quickly and here she was pulling out a cell phone and looking at it to dial.

        I laid on my horn, holding it down and it so startled her that she dropped the phone and she looked over at me and I pointed my finger at her and she took off at 85 again.

        Two point to make:

        1: her driving concentration fell way low as she was messing with the cell phone.
        2: I realized that I could multi-task by driving and pointing at the same time

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by macdaddy357 ( 582412 )
      Bosses may think multitaskers are efficient, but chickens with their heads cut off are anything but.
    • by Belial6 ( 794905 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:49PM (#22203280)
      First, I have yet to meet a human that does not massively multitask all of the time. Even while sleeping, your body and brain are doing lots of different tasks at the same time.

      Second, There is a reason that people would call other people dumb by saying "He can't walk and chew gum at the same time." long before 'Multitask' became a common word.

      While a task that takes all of your though to accomplish might take a hit if your doing two of them, the majority of tasks that people preform in a day do not take even a small fraction of our mental capabilities. Such as... walking and chewing gum. By saying that multi-tasking makes you worse at what you are doing, you are also saying at the very least, you cannot walk as well if you are chewing gum.

      I don't know about you, but I really can walk and chew gum at the same time.
      • Of course, multitasking in motor skills is a completely different matter than multitasking in higher cognitive functions. Completely different parts of your brain are used.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Dun Malg ( 230075 )

        First, I have yet to meet a human that does not massively multitask all of the time. Even while sleeping, your body and brain are doing lots of different tasks at the same time.

        Generally when people say "multi tasking" they're talking about higher functions. Anyone can talk while taking a piss, watch TV while walking on a treadmill, or scratch their itchy ass while reading a book. This is about writing an email while talking on the phone, or driving a car while programming a destination into the GPS.

  • by iknownuttin ( 1099999 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:24PM (#22203110)
    hiring manager or HR person.

    Just about every freekin job add I see requires the ability to multi task. I used to say that I can't do it. Now, I just say that I'm as good at it as any other human. Most of the gung ho corporate types insist that they can multi task wonderfully and trying to reason with them is pointless.

    • I've always kind of laughed at the "must be able to multitask" requirements.

      Ask yourself why they want that. In a lot of cases, it's because they want people to do the job of more than one person. It's the same reason they try to get people to work 70 hours a week (and, sadly, some of the people that work for them fall for it and even think it's "macho" to trade their entire waking life for a paycheck).
      • Delegate your multitasking to the fast idiot. Write scripts to automate everything you can, and schedule them to run them in the background while you concentrate on one thing at a time.

        Every now and them one of my coworkers razzes me about not graduating from the command line, but when they want something -done-, they call me.

    • Multitasking is required to ensure profitability. Very rarely will you see a job where a person does ONE thing or performs one role..especially in an office environment.

      Lets say your entire job is to take phone calls from customers, but you aren't on a phone call 24/7. You could sit there the rest of the time, but the company isn't getting all of the bang for its buck it could be getting if you were doing something else useful in the mean time. Its common practice to load you up with 5-6 different jobs s
  • Maybe (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NJVil ( 154697 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:25PM (#22203112)
    Perhaps it's more a combination of multitasking and immediate gratification. When you get everything you want quickly, there's no need to ever learn patience or persistence.
    • by Morgaine ( 4316 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:54PM (#22203694)
      >> Perhaps it's more a combination of multitasking and immediate gratification.

      Or perhaps some peoples' gratification comes in small doses? I always found the "time management" kind of managers very annoying, regularly distracting me from concentrating on my work just because they had a deep belief in making everything subservient to the clock, their organizers, and their arbitrary day schedules.

      >> When you get everything you want quickly, there's no need to ever learn patience or persistence.

      Well they were past masters at persistence, but only a couple learned that patience was a virtue, and that it got them better results. You really can't be distracted in the middle of a core dump analysis say, not without starting from scratch anyway. And there are many similar kinds of task in the general field of computing, where human multitasking doesn't pay.

      OTOH, machines don't have that frailty, and as long as they complete their concurrent tasks without intrusively interrupting us, we're peachy.
  • by kylben ( 1008989 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:27PM (#22203132) Homepage
    What... wait... Multitasking? I'm sorry, what was that again...

    Oh, wait, hold on a minute... Hey! move it! the light's green, you jerkwad... That's it, right foot is the gas... Pay attention to what you're doing for once, huh? Jeez.

    OK, sorry, where were we?

  • Really (Score:5, Funny)

    by CHRONOSS2008 ( 1226498 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:33PM (#22203174)
    I find my IQ of 159 to aid me in multi tasking like playing multiple strategy games in differant alliances, and it keeps me sharp to keep doing many things. If i sit there and do nothing. I feel lazy, slow and ....well STUPID. Like i should be doing something. Who did htey test on this a bunch a retards?
    • Captain Murphy: And give that five Ph.D.'s thing a rest, will ya? Nobody likes hubris.
    • Re:Really (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ezratrumpet ( 937206 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:15PM (#22203438) Journal
      An IQ of 159 means that out of a random sample of 100,000 people, you have 8 people who share your intelligence, and maybe 4 or 5 who exceed you.

      I've taught about 20 students with similar IQ levels. To you, and them, this article probably doesn't apply. Your minds are making unbelievably fast connections with little effort - so what to you is really just fast processing and quick changes is a neurobiological impossibility to others.

      I always ask my students, "What will you do with the abilities and opportunities you are given?"
      • Oblig. (Score:5, Funny)

        by The Orange Mage ( 1057436 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:57PM (#22203702) Homepage

        I always ask my students, "What will you do with the abilities and opportunities you are given?"
        The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try to take over the world!
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by syousef ( 465911 )
        IQ testing is pseudo-science. For starters the testing is never independent of your previous problem solving experience so those that have seen similar problems before will have an advantage.

        Instead of focusing on an IQ number, how about asking ALL your students what they're going to do with their abilities?
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )
        Doubt it. A really highly intelligent person (I expect someone who brags about an IQ of 159 on Slashdot is probably not such a person) will suck just as much at doing two jobs at once as someone who is not especially intelligent. He or she might do each job better than the second person, but both jobs more poorly than if they were done serially.

        In fact, one of the marks of a highly intelligent person is the ability to concentrate on something for long periods, without being distracted. Taking IQ tests, f
    • Re:Really (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Omestes ( 471991 ) <> on Sunday January 27, 2008 @09:07PM (#22203750) Homepage Journal
      Er... As someone with an IQ of 159 you should realize that you are abnormal, and that writing articles addressed only to such a minority of people would be rather... absurd. Actually I don't think your subjective experience can really be generalized to other people with high IQs. For example, I've got a pretty decent IQ myself (153), and generally try NOT to multitask, I'd rather handle one situation at a time. I think its called hyperfocus, which pretty much turn tasks into "flow" like experiences. Intelligence does not lead to one style of expression, there still is tons of neural baggage, and experiences, that will shape your strategy of using it.

      Granted multitasking comes in handy, since I've noticed that most intelligent people get bored easily, and thus have a need to create their own stimulus.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        I know plenty of people smarter than me who happen to be dumber than me. That made me feel good, till I realized all the people I also knew who were dumber yet smarter than me. By these statements I mean that I know people who are analytically smarter, mathematically smarter, yet not well-read at all, and I also know people who are, at least on paper, better-educated, but don't seem to know much outside their career field. I've worked with people with Master's degrees who didn't know who Freud or Stalin
    • Re:Really (Score:5, Funny)

      by Locklin ( 1074657 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @09:24PM (#22203860) Homepage
      Obviously the inconsistent capitalization, spelling, and punctuation in your article indicates that you posted while either multitasking, or showing off your high IQ by browsing /. with vi and wget.
  • Is that why women are so good at multi-tasking?

    Or does it go one way really?
  • I multi-task very well:

    1 + 1 = 2
    P. I. G. spells pig.
    Do Re Me Fa
    *rub tummy*
    *pat head*
    *spin in circles*

    Okay, I guess I do look a little stupid.
  • by computeruser ( 1150071 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:39PM (#22203218)
    ... but the story looks too long and I know I'd lose focus. Computers have ruined my life and my brain. What's considered multi-tasking anyway. Listening to music and typing? is that too much?
  • Price and overhead (Score:5, Insightful)

    by syousef ( 465911 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:49PM (#22203276) Journal
    There's a price to everything.

    If you're worrying/stressing about something it is no surprise it will help age you. If you worry about 70 things instead of 7, it's no surprise it'll stress and age you faster. I'd say modern life is what's doing that.

    If you're multitasking there's also an overhead for switching tasks. Some of your thought is occupied by the mental juggling act. This is also no surprise.

    However what's the alternative? Modern life doesn't give you large slabs of time where you get to concentrate on one thing. If something comes up at work or at home while we're in the middle of something else that's important, what do you do? Multitasking isn't something our brains weren't built for. If we couldn't multitask we'd be very easy prey - just distract us and have us for lunch.
  • by superwiz ( 655733 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:49PM (#22203278) Journal
    Someone tags this story as obvious. Really? Is it really "obvious" what chemical processes the brain goes through during multi-tasking? Just because someone observed something through their personal experience doesn't mean that they have a scientific explanation for why it happens. This is about as absurd as tagging an article that talks about studies that show how the mechanisms within the Sun emit energy as "obvious" (because "like, oh my god, i already knew Sun was hot... I can't believe they spent money to study that").
  • by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @07:49PM (#22203284)
    I find that I am much more effective when I multi-task at many computer related tasks since they often involve waiting. While there is some efficiency lost since I'm not always ready to respond when something is ready for input, and remembering where things were left off, there's a net gain in productivity since during those waiting phases I'm not just staring at a status bar. I would agree that just trying to do two things at the same time, both of which require your full concentration, will slow them down but there are many things in a work environment that don't. It isn't useful to just sit there doing nothing because you are at a wait state for your current job. Instead, do something else while you wait.
  • I was just working on my project when I saw this article, and I was thinking that... well, gee. Now I can't remember. I'll post again later.

  • Sure, I can try to watch concurrent porn videos at the same time as writing requirement specs, but I need both hands to type.
  • "Multitasking is different than singletasking."
  • Music to my ears (Score:3, Insightful)

    by djupedal ( 584558 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:26PM (#22203498)
    ...confusion, fatigue, and chaos...

    Timing, control and balance - that's what an x-Hell's Angel told me were important to master. Without confusion, fatigue, and chaos, we'd have no need for timing, control and balance, and then where would we be on the ladder of evolution...

    Some of us multi-task just fine. If you happen to be dyslexic like me, you need to multi-task, or you'd never get past addressing an envelope, much less licking a lousy stamp while you try to hold onto the darned thing.
  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:28PM (#22203512) Homepage
    As defined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, flow [] is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity... what Csíkszentmihályi calls "optimum performance."

    In my own view (and experience), it is closely related to "happiness."

    Charles Kingsley wrote "We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all that we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about." Enthusiasm is obviously related to flow.

    And multitasking is compatible with neither.
  • by Bryan Ischo ( 893 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:30PM (#22203530) Homepage
    This jives very well with what multitasking 'feels like' to me. Whereas on the one hand I can imagine how doing many things at once, switching the task that I am working on according to the availability of external resources necessary to complete the task, would produce maximal productivity, I find that whenever I attempt this I am left with an unpleasant mental feeling of stress that makes me *not want* to do this anymore.

    For example, as a software developer, I find that there are often many things that I could be working on 'at once'. Say I have 10 bugs assigned to me, a major architectural investigation, two features that I am working on, a document or two that I need to write, and of course emails and phone conversations to keep up on.

    In the past, I have tried to maximize my productivity by switching from one to the next each time something 'blocks' me from work on the one I am actively engaged in. For example, say that I've written a bunch of code and I'm ready to check it in. But whoops, I find that there is a 'build break' and I'm not allowed to check in until whoever was responsible for it fixes it. At this point, I could switch tasks to working on some other task that is independent of this; say, some other feature that I am coding up. In order to switch to the new task, however, I have to make some mental notes of what I was doing in the first task so that I can pick up where I left off (it might just be as much as remembering that I have to hit 'return' at the end of a command line that I've already typed in, just waiting for the green light to finish the checkin; or it may be significantly more - remembering that I have to re-test a bunch of stuff to make sure it's still working in combination with whatever changes have simultaneously occurred in the code base in between now and whenever I get back to checking this code in). Once switched to this new task, I could work for a little while, only to discover that some key piece of documentation is missing that would explain to me how to use someone else's API, and that the person I need to ask about this is out of the office for the day. OK, time to switch to a new task. Once again I have to store away enough information to be able to continue where I left off on this task when I get back to it; this could mean writing some comments in the code, or sending off an email to the person who is out of the office, the response to which will be enough context to remind me of what I was doing, and pick up where I left off, or maybe doing nothing except making a mental note that I have to re-read the code when I get back to it to remember what I was doing, assuming that when I read the code again, I will come to the same conclusions and once again seek out that person, who hopefully by this time will be back in the office. At this point, I switch to the new task of, say, working on some documentation. Eventually this task will be blocked in a similar way (maybe I will just get tired of working on the documentation - this happens pretty quickly because I hate writing documentation!), and I will have to task switch again, maybe to something new, maybe back to something I was already working on.

    The amount of bookkeeping involved with retaining and then re-creating enough state to effectively work on multiple tasks at once is, in a word, exhausting. It is also stressful because one feels like one can at any moment 'forget' something important, and then lose track of a task completely, or maybe just lose track of enough information about a task that getting back to it will be much more work than it should have been. Combine all of this with the feeling that one has to stay very productive within this system in order to be seen as an effective employee, and it becomes very stressful, and mentally exhausting, indeed.

    So as a result, my mind eventually starts to 'resist' doing this kind of multitasking; it does so my making me feel like I don't like multitasking. And usually I don't perceive it specifically as a desire not to multitas
  • by ArhcAngel ( 247594 ) on Sunday January 27, 2008 @08:58PM (#22203712)
    I guess I'm the exc
  • by thePowerOfGrayskull ( 905905 ) <marc,paradise&gmail,com> on Sunday January 27, 2008 @09:23PM (#22203854) Homepage Journal
    As I'm sure some of you know well, the mark of a skilled programmer is a peculiar kind of multitasking -- the ability to maintain several 'stacks' of instruction and code in your head, representing the internal state of what you're working on at any given time. This can often encompass multiple path of execution. On the other hand, these are all facets of the same task; and perhaps not truly different/qualifying as multitasking.
  • by cavebison ( 1107959 ) on Monday January 28, 2008 @02:35AM (#22205336)
    In my personal experience of meeting various interesting people, I feel that learned behaviours have a lot to do with how one's mental skills are shaped, and hence how the person is perceived by others.

    One friend of mine had a very bad childhood. She learned to escape inwardly, by concentrating on books, study, escaping physically to a library any time she had the chance. Now, she is a doctor. She also has a photographic memory and can "re-read" pages she has scanned. People might perceive her as "high IQ". However she has trouble reading people, and cannot pick up more than the basics of computers, as she gets frustrated and bored easily. You could say she's a bad multitasker.

    If an IQ test was based on mechanical cognition, she wouldn't rate very high. If it was memory-based, she would excel. If it was dependent on multi-tasking, she would also struggle.

    Briefly, I'm the opposite. Multi-task all the time, rarely bored, but my visual memory sucks. I'm good at judging people's moods, but terrible with faces and names. I grew up slightly hypervigilant, and for some reason need to swap tasks to keep my brain ticking over, like those old watches you had to shake to wind up. I'm good at remembering practical and mechanical skills, of which I class programming as one. Which is funny, others I've spoken to class programming as technical, or mathematical. To me, it's mechanical, like a watch.

    If I sat an IQ test which required visual memory, I'd fail. If it relied on drawing meaning from literature, or reading body language I'd do well. If it required multi-tasking (like the classic male-secretary-in-busy-office experiment) I'd breeze.

    My point is, learned behaviours can sometimes be extreme, leading to some amazing skillsets while impairing other skillsets. So what does a measure of multi-tasking ability or IQ really mean, in terms of gauging "intelligence"? Nothing, in my opinion.

    To me, intelligence, simply means we function well in our environment. As modern humans, we tend to pick our environments so that our learned skills are most applicable. That's "comfort zone". Sometimes dysfunctional, but always dependent on the skills you have learned therefore, ideally, the place where you are most "intelligent".

"I don't believe in sweeping social change being manifested by one person, unless he has an atomic weapon." -- Howard Chaykin