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26 Jul 2011

In Defense of Multi-tasking and Channel Surfing

In Tobey Deys’ comment about my post regarding the implications of people’s unawareness to television viewing, she asked for my thoughts on the productivity of multi-tasking and to some degree channel surfing.

Generally, there are many studies reference the decline of productivity from these tasks. We frequently hear about cell phones and driving for example. However, there are five contrarian considerations:

  1. Situational awareness varies by person
  2. Situation might require it
  3. Over focus produces narrow-mindedness
  4. Synchronicity could occur
  5. Enjoyment could result

First, the negative effects of multi-tasking and channel surfing will vary by person. Two people can focus on the same task and retain a different degree of awareness with respect to their surroundings. Thus, varying levels of situational awareness can make multi-tasking and channel surfing less costly for some.

Second, the situation might demand multi-tasking. Rather than focus on one task at a time, productivity might increase if we coordinate the performance all tasks such as running errands.

Third, over focus can prevent us from seeing other opportunities for increasing productivity. Here, multi-tasking and channel surfing can retard the effects of anchoring in which we become too wedded to an approach.

Fourth, these activities allow synchronicity to play out by allowing us to “stumble” upon people, information or other resources that might benefit us later rather than now.

Finally, we might find so much enjoyment in multi-tasking and channel surfing that we become more productive because our attitude improves.

In the end, these activities are a personal decision. People are too different to apply findings without modifications. Of course, there is also the point that sometimes having fun is more important than being productive.


4 Responses

  1. Daniel Bobke

    Multitasking, in its true definition, is doing more than one thing at once – true parallel processing. What we are calling human multitasking is actually serial switching between tasks. The human mind can really only focus on one thing (input) at once – at least with any kind of effectiveness. Maggie Jackson wrote a book called Distracted which focuses on “multitasking”. What her research found is that human cognitive ability drops when trying to switch between tasks. We may do more things, but we do them less well.

    In the book The Shallows (Nicholas Carr), David Meyer (a leading expert on multitasking and neuroscientist at Univ. of Michigan) says that while we can overcome some of the inefficiencies inherent in multitasking, but it is only the rarest of circumstances where you would be as good as if you had just focused on one thing at a time.

    “Multitasking” is a skill that you might get better at, but it is at the expense of other capabilities.

    1. Yes, Daniel, if you focus solely on the cognitive aspects, there are many studies supporting the point that you will do that task better. What I was trying to do was get us to look at it from another perspective: Is multi-tasking more fun for us at times? Is being productive (but not having fun) better than having fun (but not being productive)? If so, what is the value of fun? For instance, classical economic models find it tough to rationalize why people are willing to give their labor freely in open sourcing models. Some people do so because it’s fun for them. One of the reasons is that the models have a difficult time putting an economic value on fun.

      In effect, let’s alter the experiment from one of which is better cognitively to which is more fun. Then, let’s see which one comes out on top.

      1. Joe

        Multitasking prolongs task/project completion which delays a sense of accomplishment. If a person feels it’s “fun” to be productive and accomplish things, focus and single-tasking helps to optimize. If a person feels it fun to “spin plates” or juggle, multitasking might be just the thing to help have more fun.

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