Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On Multitasking

As I'm writing this post, I suddenly get the urge to check on the status of my fantasy baseball team. No problem: I just open up a new tab, click on my bookmark, and see that I lost a place in the standings from yesterday. But now that I have an insight for a clever way to word the next sentence, I tab back over to blogger.com and resume writing. Congratulations: I am now multitasking!

Now, I know what you would say, if we were conversing: "Silly Pankin, that's not multitasking in the true sense of the word - doing two things at once. That's just switching your attention back and forth between two things." But I'd be ready to respond: I've done the research, and I found that when we consider a person (or a computer) to be "multitasking," we are really just watching that person (or processor) alternate between doing two things very very quickly - sometimes even multiple times per second.

Today's advanced technology - computers that fit in the palm of one's hand, telephones that one can jam in one's ear and control with one's voice - makes it easier to do multiple things at once. But does that mean we are necessarily better at it? Follow me through the jump while I decide.

According to these science-y type guys, because the human brain is not very good at handling two tasks simultaneously, attempting to multitask really slows us down. It's not that it takes a long time to switch our attention between tasks - we're actually quite good at picking up one task exactly where we left it off - the problem is that the time/energy spent switching is spent just on switching and not on completing either task. So it will actually take me longer to write this blog while also checking my fantasy stats than it would take me to complete both tasks sequentially.

But while these scientific theories do a good job explaining the who, what, how, and how-long of multitasking, they don't do a very good job on the why. On paper, writing this post from start to finish with no distractions would take a shorter time than tabbing back and forth between my fantasy league, my email, and the baseball game (A's are currently leading 1-0, btw). But in reality, distractions occur, and if they're not satisfied, they can fester and build up until my writing productivity suffers enough that it wouldn't even be worth continuing.

I call this phenomenon psychological diminishing returns, and it works in much the same way as the blaster pistol from the old N64 video game Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire. Rather than making use of a store of ammunition, the blaster had a kind of rechargeable battery to show you how powerful each blast would be. It started at 100% (full power), and each shot would reduce the power by 10 or so percent. If you stopped shooting, the number would immediately start to climb back towards 100. So if you fire too rapidly for too long, sure you'll get more shots off, but each shot will be at only a fraction of the weapon's potential power.

My mind works much the same way. If I sit and hack away at writing this blog for hours on end, sure there will be more writing on the page. But after a certain point, each successive word will be that much less effective, both grammatically and aesthetically. Sometimes tabbing over for a moment to see if Gio Gonzalez will escape this two-on, two-out jam without allowing a run can help recharge my batteries, so to speak.

(Whew, Austin Kearns just flew out to end the inning.) The disparagers of multitasking will likely say that switching to another task doesn't cause the batteries to recharge, but rather causes a different battery to drain just as fast. That could be the case, but the human brain is still a subject of great mystery. Some say that our two frontal lobes act as two distinct batteries/processors, so that we can handle two simultaneous tasks, but no more. Others say that learning to multitask is akin to learning a language, and that our capacity to do so drops significantly after age 16 or 17. Others call hooey on the whole enterprise.

Sometimes I like to multitask while I'm engaged in a relatively passive activity with a set time, such as watching a baseball game. The game will last ~3 hours regardless of how much attention I'm paying. So what if my secondary task takes longer than normal because I'm splitting my attention between it and observing the A's chronic inability to score runs? Surely it's no less efficient than putting whatever I had to do on hold for the entire length of the game.

But here's a question that has gone unasked throughout this whole ordeal: What's the big rush? There's an assumption that people multitask because they want to do things faster, and if they're not in fact doing things faster, then they have failed to accomplish their goal. But what if we multitask not to perform more tasks in less time, but just because we like it. Sometimes it's fun to have a bunch of balls in the air at once, even if it makes each ball slower. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that's why there are jugglers.

And just to clarify for all those who doubt the human ability to multitask effectively: I wrote this entire blog post while sitting at my desk at work. Suck on THAT, new productivity schedule!