An Experiment on Multitasking: How Efficient is It?

Mark Shead
August 29, 2013



Many people pride themselves on their ability to multitask. The problem is that humans are very bad at it.

I was at a software conference where a presenter was trying to illustrate this through a simple exercise that went like this:

Get five to 10 people to stand in a circle and ask them to go through the following sequences. First the alphabet, then count by 3s to 36, then count by 6s to 72. Each person says one item for the sequence and the person on their right says the next. This is pretty easy to do. It only takes a few minutes to go through all the different sequences when they are being done one at a time.

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Next you do the same exercise, but this time simulating multitasking. As you go around the circle working your way through the sequence, one person will instruct the group to switch between sequences. So now it might go something like: A, B, C, (switch to 3s), 3, (switch to alphabet), D, E, F, (switch to 6s), 6, 12, (switch to 3s), 6, 9, 12…..

This is much MUCH more difficult because it requires you to multitask and switch context between the different sequences. You can do it if you try hard enough, but it is very frustrating and slow. If you had to choose between being on a team that was switching between the sequences or a team that was going to recite each sequence one at a time, which would you choose? Which would you choose if there was some type of prize for getting done first?

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Obviously, the one that team that isn’t multitasking is going to finish much faster than the one that is. But for some reason, we try to figure out how to multitask when it comes to our normal work, regardless of how inefficient it is. Culturally, we’ve come to accept multitasking as a badge of honor instead of what it really is — a way to be massively inefficient while appearing to be busy.

If you work for someone else who is constantly asking you to do this and then do that, how can you help but multitask? One simple solution is to write whatever you are working on currently on a whiteboard. If you boss asks you to work on something else, just confirm that they want you to stop working on your current task and do what she is asking. If your boss just told you task X is the highest priority and come in now saying that task Y is the most important, make sure she understands that working on Y means stopping on X.

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Sometimes she may still want you to stop and work on Y, but just having that conversation helps point out that you can only work on one thing at a time. Simply instructing you to do more things isn’t going to get anything done any faster. Instead it will just slow things down.

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