The Myth of Multitasking

If you think your multitasking skills are improving your productivity, think again. Consistent with other multitasking research, a new working paper (ungated version)?by Decio Coviello, Andrea Ichino and Nicola Persico analyzes?a sample of Italian judges with different caseloads and finds that “task juggling, i.e., the spreading of effort across too many active projects, decreases the performance of workers, raising the chances of low throughput, long duration of projects and exploding backlogs.” The authors highlight the role of work scheduling in employee productivity, writing that “[i]ndividual speed of job completion cannot be explained only in terms of effort, ability and experience: work scheduling is a crucial ‘input’ that cannot be omitted from the production function of individual workers.” [%comments]

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

ALL TASKS ARE NOT EQUAL. For instance composing an essay, playing a violin, writing a letter or reading a critical passage requires full concentration.

Listening to music or television, innane conversation, drinking a Frappachino, driving, eating, chewing gum or walking only requires partial attention.

You can be partially attentive to several activities, unless they are a critical creative process like sonata composition. Like all things, all activities are not equal. Activities should be graded on the amount of concentration required.

There are a few posters on this Blog who by grammar and spelling errors, incomplete logic, poor argument presentation, and poor compostions betray their multitasking activities. --Stick to gum chewing and walking.


I feel your pain, Drill Team (#1) - my compostions aren't going all that well, either.


Driving requires full attention. Hopefully, I won't be on the road at the same time as Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team.


#1: If you think driving requires only partial attention, you are part of the problem.

This may be translated as: "Maybe other people can't multitask, but I'm better at it."

No, you're not. Anyone with that attitude on the road is a menace. Unitask!


"Listening to music or television, innane conversation, drinking a Frappachino, driving, eating, chewing gum or walking only requires partial attention."

A comment like this needs to be evidence driven. in fact, there's at least one study out there that says that listening to music (by teens) decreases their competence & concentration on homework. There are many studies that show that driving and talking (on a cell phone) decreases driving ability.

There are individual differences (I for one, would not classify driving as a low attention activity for myself), but there are also vastly inaccurate estimates by individuals of their own distributed attention capabilities.

Jon Lewis

We are to be thankful for the presumptuous commentator who is such a self-judged (and self-absorbed) driver that he does so with only partial attention. Please all, stare in our new found ignorance at the shining glory of his arrogance.

As a driver who only held a regional SCCA license but did fairly well with 300-495 hp track cars, I am awestruck at the humbleness of your assertion. I commit my full attention as much as possible when I am behind the wheel. That commitment is hardly 100% effective but it is the goal - the safe one for my child, me, and those foolish enough to drive while multi-tasking.

And as an oil man who's covered half a dozen southern and western states, I am similarly awestruck by your in-depth analysis of our country's domestic e&p policy.

timo buckner

Drill Guy at #1,

You spelled inane wrong. Stop watching TV and concentrate on your posts!


Is anyone really surprised by this finding?


As much as I would like to agree with "Drill-baby-Drill Drill Team" (did you come up with that name while multitasking?) I think it wouldn't hurt concentrating on sipping coffee and/or chit-chatting.

It annoys hell out of me when I am talking to someone and that someone just whips his or her phone and start checking emails. I usually ask them whether gravity is expiring in couple of hours because if it's not that important then you better talk to me.

I guess this multitasking will keep increasing considering information is so readily available everywhere. And it may not be detrimental in a sense we all will die but it will surely decrease our social experience.


To #1



I very much agree DBDDT.

Not only are there jobs that *can* be done while doing something else, there are jobs that can only be tolerated while doing something else.

For example; earlier in my life I took a job as a data entry operator. If I had only focused on data entry I would not have lasted more than a few days at that job. Luckily we were able to listen to music and chat with our co-workers while we were keying. This made the job tolerable, and while our accuracy may have decreased slightly, it was still within the very strict metrics required.

Although I do agree that things like driving should be given our full attention.


Lord Chesterfield once wrote to his son that "Steady and undissipated attention to one object is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind." Modern neurological research has proven him right-a 2005 Hewlett-Packard study found that, "Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers."

Russell Poldrack has shown that multitasking interferes with learning by giving the work to the striatum (a part of the brain that handles novelty-related decision making) rather than the hippocampus, which controls the storage and recall of information and is triggered only in undistracted learning. René Marois has shown it triggers gluticocorticoid and adrenaline hormones, which not only interfere with learning but can cause long-term health problems. Loren Frank has shown that when rats explore, their brains show new patterns of activity, but these only turn into persistent memory if the rats have a chance to take a break from their explorations. Similarly, if you take a walk in nature after learning something, you'll remember your lesson far better than if you take a walk in a dense urban environment. "Downtime lets the brain go over experiences it's had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories," Frank said. With constant stimulation, "you prevent this learning process."

In 1998, I brought Heidegger's Being and Time on a year-long trip through Africa. It was my reading, my pillow, my weapon for fighting off giant beetles. And it took about six months to read properly. One of my favorite sections was when Heidegger talks about neugierig, the German word for curiosity which translates literally, and unflatteringly, as "greed for novelty." In 2010, I can't go to the toilet without taking my blackberry-otherwise I feel like I'm wasting time doing only one thing-and can't imagine anyone reading Heidegger at all. Not while PlayFish strives to "reinvent the [mobile video] game experience to fit into micro-moments" of under two minutes.

The current issue of Make magazine has 23 gadgets you can build on your own. The most interesting one is simply a gadget that turns itself off. The editors of the magazine described it as "creepy."

Whether it's efficient or not, multitasking is part of the culture. I write with two computer screens and my blackberry, wishing I had two mice to go with it. But then I'd have to teach my eyeballs to look at each screen independently...



While driving may not require your full attention, the more you give it, the better you do it.


DRIVING?! Where do you live? I want to stay away from there.

willima marcy

Duh, okay.


In response to Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team, I'd say that I generally agree with you, if and only if there is no need to be mindful for any of the activities.

Based on research that has been done on driving and simultaneously being engaged in phone conversations (hands-free isn't the issue, being engaged is), I'm guessing that driving requires a lot more attention than is usually given to it, so I would take it out of your "partial attention" category.


driving should demand your full attention, you are a danger to others. I hope don't licve anywjhere near you!


The only true multitasker in the world is a mother with at least 2 small children of differing ages and both requiring attention for different reasons.

Everyone else is a pretender.


Today's multi-tasker was yesterday's scatter-brain.


This seems like common sense to me. Of course multi-tasking making you more effecient is a myth. Unfortunately I have been doing just that in my position for the last couple of years. It is essentially the job description, which is exactly why I've gotten a new job! Spinning wheels and changing gears all day long simply leads to no real productivity and causes a lack in motivation to really focus or concentrate on one activity/task. When the completion of a task has no real impact, where is the incentive to do it at all (in a professional setting)? Employers should take note of this and ask themselves "what is the outcome?" before they assign or tolerate assinine job duties and essentially flush someone's skill set down the toilet.
And #18 "the only true multi tasker is a mom of 2 small kids" - you're absolutely RIGHT!