» Archive for the 'Multitasking' Category

The Impact of Interruptions and Multitasking On Knowledge Worker Efficiency and Effectiveness

Thursday, April 14th, 2011 by Cody Burke

So this is going to get worse as I get older?

Interruptions and multitasking are two afflictions that take a tremendous toll on our ability to focus, complete tasks, and be productive.  Our own research on interruptions shows that the recovery time, that is, the time it takes an individual to return to a task after being interrupted, can be as much as 10 to 20 times the length of the original interruption.  This means a 30 second interruption can result in an average of five minutes of recovery time, and that is optimistically assuming that one returns to the original task and does not abandon it.

It’s already been established that multitasking is not really possible for the human brain to engage in with any efficiency; instead, it is really just a series of interruptions, or task switches.  Multitasking results in lowered efficiency in all of the tasks being performed: there is no substitute for focused thinking on a single task.

New research from the University of California, San Francisco, that was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the impact of multitasking and interruptions on older people is even more pronounced.  The study took 20 young adults with an average age of 25, and 20 older adults, with an average age of 69, and showed both groups a landscape picture.  They were told to keep the picture in their mind, and were then shown an image of a face and were asked several questions about it.  Then the subjects were shown another landscape picture, and asked to determine if it matched the first picture they were shown.

While the subjects were being shown the images, their brains were being scanned using an fMRI machine to show brain activity.  Both groups were able to switch from the landscape picture to the face image with the same proficiency, however, the brain scans showed that the elderly subjects took longer to switch from thinking about the image of the face back to the landscape portraits.  (The younger subjects were negatively impacted as well, but not as severely as the older subjects.)

Dubbed an “interruption recovery failure” by the researchers, the findings suggest that, as we age, our ability to recover from interruptions is reduced.  Another (albeit unlikely) interpretation of the findings is that there are also cultural factors at work, such as the younger test group’s relatively higher exposure to high amounts of distraction and interruptions as they grow up.

A critical outcome from the study was that the initial hypothesis, that older people experienced more detrimental effects from interruptions because they fixated on the new interruption more than younger people, was false.  In fact, the degree to which the subjects switched focus to the interruption was the same regardless of age; it is the “interruption recovery failure,” or what we call recovery time, that set the groups apart.

For the knowledge worker, young or old, the study demonstrates not only the existence of the recovery time phenomenon but also that it may increase in severity with age.  We don’t yet fully understand the impact that excessive multitasking and interruptions have on the brain as it develops and ages, but we do know now that there is a very real impact on brain activity, and we should redouble our efforts to reduce both the interruptions we are subjected to, as well as those we inflict on others.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Multitasking – Myth and Illusion

Friday, November 16th, 2007 by David Goldes

Back in 2004, Jonathan Spira wrote about The Thumb Generation, knowledge workers that are found in many lands, often without so official a designation, but who are instantly recognizable by their indefatigable use of their BlackBerry or other handheld device to read mail and exchange text messages.

At that time, he also noted that productivity gains from multitasking were “illusory at best”.

But what about the Millenials, I hear readers ask?  After all, they are a generation that was born multitasking?  Won’t they do better?  Current research suggests that this is also illusory.

The issue got some degree of attention with a front-page story in the New York Times  and news reports on multitasking seem to be popping out every day now.

One article in this month’s issue of American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, spotlights The Myth of Multitasking via an interview with our chief analyst.

“You only think you are more productive,” Jonathan explained.  “[But] you’re really drinking the Kool-Aid of productivity.”  Over time, he explains, the relentless intrusions that fuel frenetic multitasking can really add up.  As we all know, the average knowledge worker loses 2.1 hours per day to unnecessary interruptions (anything from an in-person visit to an instant message or text message) plus recovery time (the time it takes to get back to where you were, something we found may be as much as 10 to 20 times the length of the interruption itself).  It bears repeating that the annual cost to the U.S. economy is $650 billion per annum for unnecessary interruptions and recovery time.

The problem with multitasking is that there is no such thing. The brain is capable of one thought at a time.  Speeding this up can only mean you are switching between different tasks more rapidly.  This unto itself wastes time although one might feel very efficient while “multitasking.”

But who doesn’t multitask nowadays?  I will admit to checking e-mail occasionally during a conference call or sending a few instant messages.  In fact, oftentimes [during a meeting] we have a back channel via IM that effectively comprises a parallel meeting to the one we are attending.  Television news (for those of us who still watch news on TV) reports regularly on the dangers of multitasking while driving.  These not only include using the phone, but applying make-up and reading.

The fact is that most people feel compelled to multitask for fear of falling behind.  The truth is that it’s the very process of multitasking that may cause this.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Information Overload: Front Page News

Friday, March 30th, 2007 by David Goldes

Organizations of all shapes and sizes are facing new problems that develop as we enter the knowledge economy.  The problem of information overload, which costs billions of dollars in lower productivity and thwarted innovation, is impacting your organization right now whether you realize it or not.

One question revolves around how much information any one person can manage at a given time.  Compound that with the fact that information technology allows information (imagine that) to be generated at a faster and faster pace and companies whose employees’ work revolves largely around interaction with computers are in trouble.

This past Sunday, the New York Times put the problem of multitasking and information overload on the front page in a story by Steve Lohr .  Lohr sought out experts (including my colleague Jonathan Spira, chief analyst at Basex) and presents an excellent survey of research in this area.

As a regular reader of Basex research, you already know this is a problem: one we pegged at $588 billion 18 months ago.  It’s no longer $588 billion however; recent calculations by some of my colleagues show the current figure to be closer to $650 billion pear year.

This type of discussion, when it appears in mainstream media, is usually buried in the middle of the business or technology section.  That it is on the front page demonstrates that it has moved into the mainstream.  What makes the Times’ article even more compelling are the photos of “potentially dangerous” activities (such as riding a bike or crossing a street while sending a text message).

But what about the Millenials, the generation that was born multitasking?  Won’t they do better?  Current research suggests that this is illusory.  While they may be good multitaskers, research suggests they are no more productive than older generations.  Interruptions slow down the brain and increase the likelihood of mistakes regardless of age.  Harley Freeman, a freshman at Texas Christian University and columnist for the Daily Skiff,  thinks that enough is enough.  In her column yesterday on the dangers of multitasking, she chokes on the $650 billion figure.  Her recommendation: “While society tells us to go, go, go, I believe that sometimes we should just take a chill pill.”

[Editor's note: you can obtain a copy of our latest report, Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us, by clicking here.]

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

Oyayubi Sadai – The Thumb Generation

Friday, December 17th, 2004 by Jonathan Spira

In Japan, they are called oyayubi sadai, or the “thumb generation.”  These knowledge workers are found in many lands, often without so official a designation, but they are instantly recognizable by their indefatigable use of their BlackBerry or other handheld device to read mail and exchange text messages.  In some circles, the BlackBerry is referred to as a crackBerry, and their habituated users are found on the beach, in churches and temples, and during conferences and meetings.

People exchange messages while driving, watching television, and eating meals.  There is no doubt that many of these mobile technologies have enabled us to become more productive in certain respects.  But they also can make us somewhat unproductive if carried too far.  Some newer technologies are inherently less efficient than older ones.  For example, it might take five minutes to thumb a text message, while leaving the same message in voicemail might take 30 seconds.

It appears that many of the productivity gains which mobile device makers would like to attribute to their products are illusory at best.  While these devices enable multi-tasking, most users are not aware of their own limitations in terms of what they can accomplish at once.  That in turn leads to multislacking, increasing errors, short-circuiting attention spans, creating unnecessary stress, and actually causing tasks to take longer than they ordinarily would.

It is not unusual to find a knowledge worker who has a mobile phone, a PDA, an MP3 player, a laptop, and a pager.  The stress of merely keeping these devices charged is enough to make one feel overwhelmed.  Device manufacturers have not made it easy for such road warriors carrying these tools – each of these has a separate charger, ear plugs from an MP3 player aren’t usually compatible with a mobile phone, and chargers tend to be heavier and larger than the devices they support.

But the rush that some knowledge workers claim to get may have a basis in reality; all that typing, punching, thumbing, and scrolling can cause electrical stimulation of the brain, which in turn activates our dopamine-reward system, unleashing a pleasure-inducing rush.

This constant “on” mode can also trigger cognitive overload.  Most mobile devices compete for their owner’s attention in a manner that most resembles a family pet: they make noise and blink until attention is given.  However, the constant back and forth dilutes knowledge worker performance and could unleash a backlash against mobile technologies.  Already, the teenagers who led the way with instant messaging and text messaging are holding NTMA (no text messaging allowed) parties.  Amtrak introduced Quiet Cars in the mid-1990s in response to traveler complaints about incessant mobile phone usage.  Perhaps today, quiet is no longer sufficient.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.


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