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Your brain on multitasking

Multitask
If you're a programmer, you know that context-switching in a multi-threaded system isn't 100% free. There's overhead with tiny bits of time lost on each switch, as a new thread takes control. Well, it's the same way with your brain. Only a lot slower. And it doesn't look like
Brain 2.0, Now... with Multi-Processor Capability!
will be coming anytime soon.

And although there have been plenty of studies to show otherwise, the belief that multitasking will let us get more done continues. Think of how many times you've been on the phone with someone when you hear that little click-clack of their keyboard. (I hate that. I do it to other people, but I hate it when they do it to me.) And it makes me crazy when I'm trying to have a conversation with someone in the same room, while they're saying, "Uh-huh... yeah... I'm listening...sure, I can do this and talk at the same time...". You know who you are ; )

Our brains can't do even two independent things that require conscious thought, especially if those two things involve different goals. But that's OK, you might think, since multi-threaded systems on a single-processor aren't technically doing two things at the same time.. they're simply switching back and forth so quickly that they just appear to be processing simultaneously. But that's the problem... the brain isn't a computer, and in many cases the brain works much more slowly than a modern processor.

With each context switch, say, from the phone conversation to the email, there's a hit. And it's not a subtle hit. One of the things I really like about stress-management expert Jon Kabat-Zinn is that he sometimes offers seminars and workshops on time-management, but when you get there, it turns out his approach isn't about how you manage your file folders, but about mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness is like adding more hours to your day. If you're mindful, time slows down. You get more done, enjoy things more, and feel less stress. These are big claims, but anyone who's practiced mindful meditation or, like me, mindfulness-hold-the-meditation-thanks, will swear it's true.

So if you're stressed for time, do everything you can to resist the seemingly-intuitive notion that doing several things at once will save time. I know how hard it is to let that go, but study after study proves this wrong (here's another article from CIO magazine). Obviously there are exceptions, especially if you're quite content to let the quality of the work go down, or to be rude to the person you're talking to.

But imagine what it would be like if every time your co-worker, friend, spouse, lover, child wanted to say something to you and you turned and gave that person all your attention. End of story. No television sucking you into the event horizon. No glancing at the computer. No talking on the phone or checking your watch or reading a report... just 100% mindful, totally there, perfect eye contact, YOU. If you already do this now, that's awesome. If not, then if you try it--and I mean really try it--your family might think something's wrong with you. (One of those, "Who are you and what have you done with my husband?" moments.)

One tip: the brain finds it almost impossible to not turn to look at a television that's on (more on that in another post). So turn it off. If you must have television, make it a destination event. Something you do consciously like choosing to go to the theater. One of the worst things you can do to your brain (and family) is just have the TV on when you're doing virtually anything else but sitting down to watch a specific show. In other words, have a damn good reason for turning it on, and I swear you'll get more done (and have more energy... remember, television acts as somewhat of a temporary sedative to your brain. It literally sucks your energy, while simultaneously making you feel like it's helping you to relax. There's a great issue of Scientific American special edition on the Mind (volumne 14, number 1) that goes into a lot of technical detail about this).

If you want to get more done, be mindful.
If you want to have more time, be mindful.
Mindful means one thing at a time.
It's how the brain works, no matter how you try to convince yourself you can do it (although there is evidence that fast media/video-gamer kids are a little faster at switching. Not because they have a younger brain, but because their brains were more wired for this pace at a younger age).

As the Buddha might have said, when you're answering email, don't try to talk to someone at the same time. Be the emailing. ; )

Posted by Kathy on March 9, 2005 | Permalink

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Your brain on multitasking:

» Mind on Multitasking from InVisible Blog
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Comments

My wife and I have bought a new house with two lounges, one has a tv, the other doesn't.

We did this 'cos we realised that spening time with eachother meant nothing - if we weren't facing eachother.

People talk about giving someone their "undivided attention", however, what they seem to miss is the concept that there is no other kind.

We use this in preso training, when people complete with their own slides.

Suckers...!

Posted by: Rich...! | Mar 10, 2005 1:00:09 AM

I have always wondered why I couldn't multi-task better. I thought it was a talent I had to learn/master. Your blog clears things up a lot. Thanks.

Posted by: Kumar | Mar 10, 2005 12:46:11 PM

I like the be mindful angle. You post put me to mind of a back-of-the-envelope how to quantify the effects of multi-tasking and distractions experiment that's been posted on my company's intranet for a couple of years now. You've inspired me to take it public. Thanks! It's a light alternative to the studies you've cited that you and your readers might find amusing: http://rantzilla.blogspot.com/2005/03/multi-tasking-and-distractions.html

Posted by: George Demmy | Mar 10, 2005 1:16:40 PM

As soon as Brain 2.0 DOES become available, sign ME up. I sure could use an upgrade ;)

Posted by: Jay | Mar 10, 2005 5:19:28 PM

I can't get anything done because I keep reading these damn.. BLOGS!

Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Mar 10, 2005 10:00:23 PM

And here I thought my limitations along these lines were about being genetically testosterone-hardwired to concentrate ever so intently upon killing the next something and eating it. But what do you know? - even an intelligent, diversified female cannot do more than two things at once! And allow me to merge metaphors: Granted, we don't want to become tiger snacks, but perhaps this is teaching us that there is some virtue after all in being the tiger.

That being said, Kroger is probably just down the street, so let's be gentle and only play with our prey. ;-)

Posted by: Randy O | Mar 11, 2005 6:57:30 AM

Great post. You can add to this the wireless computer takeover. In my workplace people carry around their computers with a wireless card in it to every meeting. No one pays attention and they're basically just warm bodies, not active participants. It's a crock. And probably why people work so late around here. They're so busy doing "stuff" they don't get anything done.

Posted by: Tom Willerer | Mar 11, 2005 9:39:34 AM

Even though this one isn't entirely about multitasking, it does relate to the typing stuff. (Hey, that's a habit I need to break in myself...!)

The book: "The Jerk With The Cellphone: A Survival Guide For The Rest Of Us". http://www.jerkwiththecellphone.com

The title says it all. Argh!

Posted by: William | Mar 11, 2005 9:00:26 PM

Hey Jeff, at least, you already done "reading these damn.. BLOGS!" , dont you think so? :)

And thank you so much Kathy, i always want to do eveything faster by multitasking and always found that i never did good in it. i always think that im not talent in it(always wanna improve) and always think my brain isnot working as fast as others. So, as Kumar said, your blog clear it up. Thank you :)

Posted by: Chonticha | Mar 12, 2005 10:12:44 AM

Oh yes, so true, I agree, right on, etc.
but...
when my email program is crawling, and taking 30 seconds to open a document I'll switch my gaze to my second monitor where my favourite blogs are displayed, like this one. Is that so bad? Is there something better I could do in those 30 seconds?

Posted by: Paul Morriss | Mar 13, 2005 4:47:06 PM

I turned off my computer yesterday and finished half your java book (including all the puzzles). the book rocks.

The computer was on today (what am I doing here?) and I finished about 1 chapter

Posted by: N. Sriram | Mar 13, 2005 10:24:02 PM

Check out the resources from www.nilgiri.org ; noone writes better about one pointed attention and mindfulness as Easwaran does.

Raj

Posted by: Raj | Mar 16, 2005 7:13:23 AM

Kathy,

I think I partially disagree with you. I think that there are specific, limited, combinations of things you can do simultaneously. I think this happens when you can use different brain centers for different things. For instance, concentrating on music while doing other things like driving, or programming. I find that I have a very hard time concentrating without some music, and that I always do my best thinking while driving.

I think that because these use different parts of the brain, they don't interfere with each other. In fact, in my experience, this combination enhances the quality of concentration for both activities (music is not simply background, but something I actively concentrate on), possibly by occupying a part of the brain that would go unused for one activity, and thus wander off randomly and provide a distraction. Or it could be that there is a synergy between the two, with one stimulating or catalyzing the other in some way.

I agree with your basic point. For instance, talking on the phone and writing an email both use the language center, and interfere with each other. But I think some kinds of multitasking are a neutral or even positive influence on performance.

Posted by: Kyle Bennett | May 23, 2005 2:35:33 PM

Great Blog! But, when do companies learn? Being in a software industry, been thru this experience many times. One very recently. I've been telling that to my boss, but invain. What they say: 'Just try' i.e, DO IT. Thats screws things up.

Posted by: Lolli | Jun 22, 2005 6:49:42 PM

I have always challenged everybody with my multitasking skills. I remeber my mom one day saw me eating, reading, and listening carefully to news. She said: Why don't you play guitar?
Now, still doing the same, but at leat I know why I alway have all my jobs duties almost complete. I never completed one thing.

Posted by: Zeyad | Aug 12, 2005 1:18:51 PM

From the CIO article you quote, I particularly agree with this bit:
'Where trouble arises, says Greenberg, is with problem-solving types of tasks, the kind that require creativity, integration of thoughts, and the generation of new ideas. Switching among such tasks demands a certain degree of downtime. The fuel cell of imagination can only be drained for so long before it needs to be recharged. Attempting to solve a problem with a dead imagination is a recipe for failure, not to mention a large waste of time.'
I have spent the last 16 years or so trying to do this when I manage my autistic son in the community and among people who don't know him well. Even at home it's often a trial. I have learnt a great deal watching people who are paid to care for him - they avoid multitasking if they want him to follow through on something. So I'm no longer surprised that I am stressed if I take on his processing problems and try to deal with something novel at the same time. Nor am I surprised that I sometimes get very impatient in 'downtime'at first - until the creative juices have time to recharge and reassert themselves.

Posted by: genevieve | Nov 13, 2005 4:08:15 PM

hey Kathy, u sure about that Scientific American reference (volume 14, no. 1)? Volume 14 no. 1 as far as i'm concerned would place it somewhere in the 1800s....

Posted by: Jeff | Sep 5, 2006 8:33:39 PM

wow mom, youre smart!

Posted by: eden zillioux | Nov 23, 2006 12:14:19 PM

That’s right! The brain works slower than a modern computer, but we should take into consideration that the processor. I guess we will never be able to accomplish multi tasking in the same time until we do not learn how to use our entire brain.

Posted by: Troubled Teen | Dec 20, 2006 8:17:43 AM

@Kyle Bennett:
"I find that I have a very hard time concentrating without some music, and that I always do my best thinking while driving."
I read that's one of the many causes for crashing with the car, thinking on something completely different instead of concentrating in driving.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward | Jan 10, 2007 9:27:11 AM

Wow! Thank you! I SO needed to learn this, this week. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Posted by: spyscribbler | Feb 8, 2007 6:42:13 PM

"But imagine what it would be like if every time your co-worker, friend, spouse, lover, child wanted to say something to you and you turned and gave that person all your attention."

I think they would just get addicted to that. Byebye tv, byebye computer games, byebye me-time...

Posted by: just a thought | Feb 11, 2007 3:42:29 PM

Interesting article. I stumbled upon it while doing some reading on multitasking. It seems many employers consider multitasking a desirable job skill. I'm not sure if that's ironic or not! ;)

Posted by: John Lampard | Feb 11, 2007 11:38:37 PM

I stumbled over your blog, because of the recent prevailing discussion on a lot of blogs regarding hateful comments, the necessity of codes of behavior, etc. and found this quite interesting entry. I've always wondered why women were supposedly so good with multitasking while I did not see myself coping with it very successfully. When they came out with the results with the study I felt relieved. Recently I had a discussion with some kind of superior from work where I told him that I can not multitask and that it had been proven scientifically that it's not the best way to work efficiently, but unfortunately he didn't get it. It feels good to see someone else defend a similar position, and so eloquently.

Posted by: projektleiterin | Apr 14, 2007 1:26:24 PM

What bothers me most of all is that recruiters think that multi-tasking is a desirable thing!

Posted by: Alun Watts | May 24, 2007 8:31:45 AM

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