From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

“Our fingers are always on a button.” A Review of Recent Articles about Multitasking

There are 6,290,470 references in Google to multitasking, and almost that many opinions on whether it is counterproductive or the greatest time-management aid since the wristwatch. As befits an issue studied so exhaustively, multitasking often features in the news. A handful of recent articles turned up a few thought-provoking observations.

The “peg” for an opinion piece in the New York Times on May 21 is an executive who positioned his office computer above a treadmill so he could walk constantly, keeping fit as he ran a business. The observation was presented as a cautionary tale. Writer Carolyn Curiel cited studies that show people may pack the equivalent of 31 hours of activities into a 24-hour day by doing several things at once. She bemoaned the cost: “We think of America as a sleep-deprived nation, but we are becoming deep-thought deprived, too. A closed door does not stop interruptions, because we are packing the weapons that can shatter concentration or quiet contemplation. Our fingers are always on a button.”

And there are other costs. Interviewed for Management-Issues in Britain, Robert Croker, Ed.D., explained that the brain is not designed for multitasking. The Chair of the Human Resource Training and Development department at Idaho State University, he explained that it is a common misconception that a brain is like a computer. “A computer is designed to multitask,” he said. “A human brain is not designed to function optimally in a multitask environment.”

According to research cited in the article, jumping back and forth between tasks can take four times longer to accomplish them due to the time required for switching gears. The studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and the science journal NeuroImage also noted that the quality of completed tasks is diminished when they are performed simultaneously. The article argued that maximum productivity is more likely to be a result of better planning than multitasking.

It warned readers against becoming slaves to their email, and passed on a tip from Julie Morgenstern, described as a workplace-organizer guru. “Never check e-mail first thing in the morning,” she said. “When it comes to getting sidetracked, e-mail is a major culprit. The work that makes you money should come first.”

No one denies that conducting business on a cell phone while driving isn’t dangerous, but it is still a common practice. An article on May 11 in, an online British recruitment magazine, attached some figures to the practice. Conducted by Bibby Financial Services, it revealed that almost a quarter of business drivers own up to using their mobile phone without a hands-free kit, which has been illegal in Britain since 2003, and 42 percent confess to eating and drinking behind the wheel. They also admit to reading maps while driving, inserting CDs, tuning the radio and arguing with passengers or other drivers. More than a quarter of drivers in the study experienced a near miss while multitasking behind the wheel.

A Los Angeles Times article on May 23 featured a woman whose livelihood and the lives of millions of travelers depend on her ability to juggle many events at once. Pam Logan, an air traffic controller in San Diego, shepherds jetliners into and through the airspace of Riverside County, California, routing them around swarms of small planes that operate from local airstrips. The article argued that women are wired to multitask, indirectly describing another fact about the practice: however counterproductive or productive, undesirable or desirable, multitasking is here to stay and is essential in many workplaces. Consider where hospital emergency rooms would be without people skilled at juggling multiple demands.

Sources: New York Times; Management-Issues;; Los Angeles Times

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2006-05-30.