Thursday, March 10, 2005

Multi-tasking and Distractions

Multi-tasking and distractions are two related forces that affect people everywhere. Multi-tasking may be part of the job, or it may be a self-styled approach to one's job. Distractions, in this context, are environmental. A lot of people claim that they love multi-tasking, that it's a natural way to work, or other some such. However, multi-tasking is appropriate only in certain contexts. For instance, management is inherently a multi-tasking oriented process. Start stop put out fire stop start answer phone stop start deal with minion stop start and so on. For deep analysis, design, and other thought-intensive processes, distractions and multi-tasking are destructive.

Here is a quantitative way to understand the effect of distractions and multi-tasking. Record how long it takes to count from 1 to 26 and recite the alphabet out loud. Now, try alternating numbers and letters: 1 a 2 b 3 c ... Time that. Now try a b 1 2 c d 3 4 ... Try other variations as well, such as running it backward, or alternating order: a z 1 26 b y 2 25. That's the effect of multi-tasking.

Now, repeat the previous experiments in a room where people are talking to each other, having pages go off, etc. No one needs to talk to you directly. For bonus points, repeat while some really inane conversations are taking place, where people are spouting off stuff about which they know nothing or talking about something distasteful, irritating, or just plain stupid. If you can't come by this environment naturally, have your kid get a friend and talk just inside of earshot about having multiple partner unprotected sex with crack-addicted gang members. Try a sequence like a b c 26 25 24 z y x 1 2 3 with that going on.... That's the effect of distraction.

I hope that it is clear that it is truly disingenuous to say "multi-tasking is good!" without context. Likewise, it makes absolutely no business sense to not evaluate the cost of distributing responsibilities amongst employees and the environments in which different folks work.

I wrote this years ago, and have had it posted on our company intranet. Kathy Sierra's latest post prompted me to do a quick cut-n-paste. Her post has some links to other studies, but I'd like to think that mine's more fun.

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