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4.27.04 Not a Multitasker

Multitasking is the norm these days. Busy people love to do several things at once. I can't. I know I can't.

How many steps does it take to set up the coffeemaker to turn on automatically?

  • Put the paper filter in
  • Fill it with coffee
  • Fill the carafe with water
  • Pour it in the reservoir
  • Press the timer button

I do this routine every evening. But if I'm having a conversation with Jim at the same time, I screw it up. No kidding. I forget the water. Or I leave the water in the carafe instead of pouring it in the reservoir. Or I forget to press the timer button.

This makes me feel like a clod.

But at least now I have some research that tells me I'm not alone. This is from CNN:

In the research behind an article titled "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching" -- being published Monday in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance -- [Joshua] Rubinstein and his associates David Meyer, Ph.D., and Jeffrey Evans, Ph.D., determined that for various types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another.

These "time costs" increased with the complexity of the chores: It took longer, say researchers Rubinstein and Meyer, for subjects to switch between more complicated tasks.

"People in a work setting," says Meyer, "who are banging away on word processors at the same time they have to answer phones and talk to their co-workers or bosses -- they're doing switches all the time. Not being able to concentrate for, say, tens of minutes at a time, may mean it's costing a company as much as 20 to 40 percent" in terms of potential efficiency lost, or the "time cost" of switching, as these researchers call it.

"In effect," says Meyer, "you've got writer's block briefly as you go from one task to another. You've got to (a) want to switch tasks, you've got to (b) make the switch and then you've got to (c) get warmed back up on what you're doing.

This is not good if you are, say, an air traffic controller or a coffee-maker. Time will be lost. Mistakes will be made. This gives new meaning to the phrase "asleep at the switch."

So yesterday I had to make 7 VHS tapes and 8 DVDs of what I call my Allegany Lucy project. For each set up I had to be careful that my mind was not being entertained by something else so I wouldn't have a lapse and do something dumb like forget to press record. Nothing more embarrassing than a client who finds herself with a blank tape because I was multitasking.

I'm content to be old-fashioned this way.


Multi-tasking research:
CNN story
Star-Telegram story
Multitasking Madness


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