New York Times on Multitasking

March 27, 2007 at 11:16 pm | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | Leave a comment

If you haven’t seen the New York Time articles article called “Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic” (available here), I recommend you take a look. It deals with attention mostly from a multitasking point of view and mentions several interesting research projects about the ability of the human brain to multi-task.

“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

I feel it falls for a few common fallacies though. For example, when it says that multitasking is a bad thing and quotes René Marois of Vanderbilt University as saying “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once.” That may be true, but it is also true that a core limitation is an inability to concentrate hard on one thing for long periods of time (for most people). Air traffic controllers, for example, are often forced to take breaks to keep them alert. So there is some idea spot on this continuum between having your tasks interrupted constantly and concentrating on the same task for hours on end. Personally, I take breaks when I feel myself starting to rehash the same thoughts or slowing down a bit and purposely switch to another task for a little while to keep myself fresh.

Another fallicy is that it quotes the same Basex study I commented on previously, but with a little more information. It says the study did include recovery time which is good. But interruptions were as defined by the person being surveyed or interviewed, which still discounts the possible positive impact of interruptions and doesn’t count them as a closed loop with both the interrupter and interruptee.

In summary, I think the article is right on target when it says “In short, the answer appears to lie in managing the technology, instead of merely yielding to its incessant tug.”

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