The Illusion of Multitasking Humans

I sigh every time I read or hear somebody discussing humans who multitask. Humans cannot multitask.

Basic physics teaches that humans can be in only place at one time. Humans can only do one thing at a time. This is an inherent limitation of living within the constraints of three dimensions. Time is linear and there is no known way to traverse the dimension of time.

While humans can set into motion several tasks or chores, they can do so only sequentially. I can start the dishwasher and then mow the lawn, but I cannot do both concurrently. When I finish mowing the lawn the dishwasher cycle will have completed, but I can only remove the dishes from the dishwasher sequentially after I finish or interrupt mowing the lawn.

No human can do two things at once.

Part of the stress experienced by modern humans is caused by this illusion of multitasking.

Employers looking for people who can multitask are looking for people who can participate in concurrent projects and handle interruptions during the work day. And do so with a smile and positive attitude.

Such skills are not multitasking.

While often I set into motion several tasks or chores, I do not fool myself into thinking I am multitasking.

To reduce distractions and interruptions, sometimes I close my email client. I do this when I want to focus on a specific computer task or chore. That does not mean never replying to emails, just not the instant the email arrives. I have disabled phone ringers too for the same reason. Caller ID lets me return calls.

That email propagates around the world in mere seconds creating an illusion of instant access does not mean recipients can or are required to reply immediately. When I send emails I hope for timely replies but I never expect immediate replies.

Computer notifications such as popup dialogs or background audio beeps or bells are disruptive to focused thinking.

I enjoy music in the background while using a computer. Yet often I do not listen to music because sometimes I find the music distracting. I want to focus and concentrate.

The distinction is how much focus I need to provide to complete a specific task. When I really want to focus without distractions then I remove the typical distractions. Otherwise I deal with ebb and flow of life like anybody else.

I do not use a smart phone. I have seen people who keep their smart phones next to their computer keyboards. Every time there is an audio alert from the phone the person stops like a Pavlovian dog and focuses on the phone.

I have watched many people receive audio alerts on a smart phone and in the middle of conversations ignore the other people and attend to the phone.

Two observations here. Smart phones can be disruptive and humans cannot multitask.

I learned long ago not to try to read anything that requires focus when others want to engage me in conversation. Trying to do anything like that is rude and only frustrates trying to read. Smart phones are no exception.

Unlike computers, humans cannot pause a task and later continue as though there was no pause. The human mind does not function like a Scroll Lock key. Any pause or interruption requires renewed attention to return to the previous task or chore. Reorganizing thoughts. The more cognitive focus required by the previous task, the more energy required to restore the focus.

There is an old Unix design motto, “Do one thing and do that one thing well.” That motto works well for humans too.

There is an old joke about whether a person can walk and chew gum at the same time. There is much truth in the old joke. Most people are challenged to focus on more than one thing at one time. I am no different. That does not mean I am incapable of juggling concurrent projects or handling interruptions. Only that at any one moment in the day I try to remain sane by focusing on one task at a time.

I accept this human limitation but occasionally find myself trying to avoid that fact. Trying to do more than possible is a recipe for stress. When I attempt to do two things at once more often than not I find myself making mistakes or increasing my stress levels. Or both.

This is not to distract from the idea that people need to pause or break temporarily from a task. Many times I find myself stumped or growing fatigued from intense task focus. I purposely walk away for a while. I find something else to do. Almost always that pause or break helps me return to the task and discover solutions.

This purposeful break is not multitasking. I still can only be in one place at one time. I still can do only one thing at a time.

Once upon a time I heard or read an amusing story. An office worker had a three-tiered desk tray organizer. The top tray was labeled PRIORITY 1. The middle tray was labeled PRIORITY 2. The lowest tray was not labeled.

When co-workers interrupted the day with requests or demands to work on a task, the office worker asked about the priority. When the co-worker replied the work was hot or of utmost priority, the office worker placed the documents in the top basket.

The office worker continued working on the current task.

If the co-worker queried about the “hot” documents within a couple of hours or first thing the next day, the office worker would pause the current task and begin working on the “hot” documents.

If the co-worker did not query in a timely manner the office worker moved the documents to the middle tray.

If the co-worker did not query about the documents for two days then the “hot” documents got moved to the lowest tray. There the documents remained until the co-worker again queried or the task could be completed through normal work flow.

Humans cannot multitask.

Posted: Category: Commentary, Usability Tagged: General

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