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More Evidence That Multitasking Reduces Productivity

Soulskill posted about 2 years ago | from the rub-belly-pat-head dept.

Technology 133

bdking writes "A recent study by a Louisiana State University psychology professor adds more evidence to the argument that the human brain is incapable of performing numerous tasks without memory and productivity loss. 'In four separate experiments, both local second-graders and LSU psychology students were shown words on a computer screen and instructed to remember them in the correct sequence. As the participants read the words, they also sometimes heard unrelated words in the headphones all were wearing. Adults in the LSU study showed a word recall performance drop of 10% on average, while the second-graders’ performance diminished by up to 30% on average.'"

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133 comments

noshit (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379517)

It's also been shown that subject have more difficult counting when someone yells random numbers at them.

Re:noshit (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379707)

...but ok, we'll call it "interesting", and store this away for the next time we have two jobs to do that require 100% performance, like building that space rocket and the brain surgery that we've been putting off.

Re:noshit (5, Funny)

Yvan256 (722131) | about 2 years ago | (#41379885)

Hence the expression "it's not rocket surgery".

Re:noshit (1)

kulnor (856639) | about 2 years ago | (#41379873)

Yup but that guy lost his job, been replaced by Facebook and Twitter

Propose addition to the dictionary (5, Funny)

Psychotria (953670) | about 2 years ago | (#41379523)

I propose that a new word is added to the English dictionary: distraction.

Re:Propose addition to the dictionary (4, Funny)

billybob2001 (234675) | about 2 years ago | (#41379891)

Good one - or, how about "distraction"? That would be a good one too.

Re:Propose addition to the dictionary (1)

Dewin (989206) | about 2 years ago | (#41381101)

Were you two saying something? I was suffering from some, umm, what's the word? Let's make one up. Distractions. Yeah, that's it. Oooh shiny!

Re:Propose addition to the dictionary (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about 2 years ago | (#41381435)

I was going to say something similar. While there is definitely a gray area in the middle, I don't think they are the same things. I would call this a lot more "distraction" than "multitasking".

Here's the thing. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379527)

Would you rather do more things okay or do one thing excellent?

Re:Here's the thing. (5, Insightful)

obarel (670863) | about 2 years ago | (#41379581)

Here's the thing: would you like to do things once and finish them, or keep fixing the mistakes you've made while being distracted?

Re:Here's the thing. (2)

sjames (1099) | about 2 years ago | (#41379989)

Alas, that's not your choices. You can either do one thing well followed by another in X time or you can do both at once poorly in 1.1X time (and then do them again later because they needed to be done well).

Re:Here's the thing. (4, Insightful)

rgbatduke (1231380) | about 2 years ago | (#41380289)

Except that is not what they tested, is it? They tested people on whether or not they could work efficiently if they are distracted, not whether or not multitasking improves or doesn't improve efficiency.

The silly thing is that we actually know quite a lot about task organization for efficient multitasking. It is a key component of task scheduling on any computer. Fine grained multitasking -- especially on a CPU that has a large latency component for switching tasks, is known as "thrashing", and is also known to degrade performance substantially, and whacking a computer with a steady stream of pointless interrupts so that it is always thrashing slows it down.

At the same time, executing tasks with the right granularity and with the right kinds of latency and parallelism can speed things up quite a lot compared to doing tasks one at a time. This, too, is true in life as much as it is in computers. Anybody who cooks knows that you cannot generally make a good meal in serial fashion. If you want to serve rice with a stir fry and end up with dessert in a timely manner, you have to be cooking the rice, chilling the dessert, and chopping up and frying the main course all "at the same time", with layered overlaps in the attention you pay to the different tasks. The tasks are all related and a skilled cook can juggle quite a few of them without cognitive or operational overload and finish a meal far faster than anyone would ever finish it cooking one thing at a time (to a soggy, cold, unproductive finish).

Most normal humans multitask all the time. I listen to music and work while wiggling my feet to maintain circulation. I hop from answering email to posting silly things like this reply to doing work on task A to doing work on task B to doing work on task C -- so much the more so when my tasks are all different, all use the computer (or a number of computers) and take different amounts of time (attended or unattended) to move on to the next stage of completion. Yes, I can be overloaded, I can thrash in my normal work if overloaded so little gets done, but that is entirely different from asking if I can work when somebody is randomly blasting uncorrelated and meaningless distractions into my workspace.

rgb

Re:Here's the thing. (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41381187)

... you cannot generally make a good meal in serial fashion ...

No, no, no. That is scheduling, without which humans would could not build a civilisation or drive a car. There is a fine line between scheduling and multi-tasking and scheduling. Scheduling involves slicing parallel activities into a serial sequence. Whereas multi-tasking is a more a 'drop everything, do this' paradigm. What is the difference? Usually splitting the same linguistic/numeric activities across similar stimuli: eg. Reading and watching television.

... somebody is randomly blasting uncorrelated and meaningless distractions ...

What makes one a distraction and the other multi-tasking? You admit that multi-tasking leads to overloading. We all do multi-tasking to get through the day. Driving a car and listening to the radio/passenger is multi-tasking. We all need multi-tasking to keep our minds active. But 'multi-tasker' people take on identical activities causing their 'change inattention' to skyrocket. Because they've missed the stimuli, they don't know how incompetent their response is. Worse, those 'multi-tasker' people think they are performing above average.

Re:Here's the thing. (4, Interesting)

MindlessAutomata (1282944) | about 2 years ago | (#41381469)

Wow, this is so far off the mark that I'm amazed you got upvoted at all. It's especially clear that you have no background in psychology, and your computer metaphor is particularly gross and is typical of when a computer scientist makes fanciful speculations on the nature of human cognition...

First of all, the claim was not that it is impossible to "multitask" in the ways you mention. Let me preface by saying this gets a little more complex with well-rehearsed tasks that have acquired some level of automaticity to them.

Furthermore,

Except that is not what they tested, is it? They tested people on whether or not they could work efficiently if they are distracted, not whether or not multitasking improves or doesn't improve efficiency.

When it comes to humans, this is essentially the same thing, as attentional focus switches between tasks. Even though the brain is massively parallel, much of human cognition, functionally speaking, works serially. I'm sure you've noticed that the more you attend to the road while driving the less you can follow the music that is playing, and vice versa. Although the nature of attention or what is even the best way to define "attention" is somewhat up in the air, quite generally the more you switch between tasks and the more attentional resources are required, the more you will suffer in performance of all the tasks. It's cute that some of the comments here on slashdot basically amount to, "well, these guys are wrong, just look at what you do in the kitchen!" as if that addresses anything the psychologists are saying. Do you really think psychologists are claiming you can't fart and chew bubble gum at the same time? Hell, let's use that cooking example--how much do you want to bet that the busier a restaurant is (keep the number of employees constant), the rate of errors increases drastically? Yeah, exactly.

Most interesting of all is why slashdot is posting this story, since this sort of thing pretty established in psychological science and many experimental methodologies and techniques regarding attention do just this sort of thing, although maybe not across the same sensory modalities.

Re:Here's the thing. (1)

petsounds (593538) | about 2 years ago | (#41381749)

I'm sure you've noticed that the more you attend to the road while driving the less you can follow the music that is playing, and vice versa.

No. Quite the opposite, in my case. Music provides a rhythm which focuses my brain, and this is true whether I'm driving or involved in another task.

However, if someone is talking to me in the car, or I'm trying to listen to a talk radio show, I have trouble focusing on both. Perhaps that is different for others.

Re:Here's the thing. (2)

raymorris (2726007) | about 2 years ago | (#41382247)

It's not the sa,e thing at all. They showed that doing a task while also being distracted by a NON-task reduced the effectiveness of the one and only task. That's not multi-tasking. A better test would have been to ask the subjects to remember what was shown and what was heard, to actually multi-task. Then count as the score any word remembered - whether the word was shown or heard. They failed by crediting only the performance on task #1. To use a real world multi-tasking example, suppose you are sorting email as pages load for a report you are researching. The syudu counts how many emails you sort. Sue, you'll sort fewer emails if you're multi-tasking, but you'll also complete the report at the same time! Ignoring the fact that TWO tasks were competed rather than just one makes the study worthless.

Lefties (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379529)

Lefties are known to be better at multitasking, so I'm wondering how many of these students were lefty. TFA doesn't mention this information.

Re:Lefties (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379821)

folk "wisdom" ? on my slashdot ?

gtfo !

Re:Lefties (1)

Pete Venkman (1659965) | about 2 years ago | (#41379823)

Just like how you didn't mention where you got the impression that lefties were better at multitasking?

Re:Lefties (4, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379947)

Because he/she is a lefty and he/she would like to think they were better at something then the righties. Typical leftist thinking :-D

Re:Lefties (1)

LordLimecat (1103839) | about 2 years ago | (#41380737)

Good old slashdot, always bringing politics into it.

Re:Lefties (1)

Fuzzums (250400) | about 2 years ago | (#41380909)

I think you're missing the point here.
AC is actually saying Linux rules and Microsoft sucks and Apple is for hipsters.

Re:Lefties (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41380409)

I don't see how suffering from a mental condition makes you better at multitasking.

I was just reading about this! (2)

dskoll (99328) | about 2 years ago | (#41379533)

I was reading about this in a couple of other tabs when... dang... lost my train of thought...

High cost of open plan (4, Insightful)

vlm (69642) | about 2 years ago | (#41379539)

Look at the high cost of loud open plan cube farms... imagine being able to lower your salary costs by 10% to 30% by productivity increases, merely by providing a more humane working environment.

Isn't it odd that you never hear people complaining, "I'm trying to concentrate here, so make a bunch of noise, OK?"

Re:High cost of open plan (2)

samazon (2601193) | about 2 years ago | (#41379567)

Right? When I'm not busy posting on /. or using gchat, I can't get any work done due to the people wandering through my office area! I could make six times the posts here if people would just bugger off!

Simple solution ... (3, Funny)

Zero__Kelvin (151819) | about 2 years ago | (#41379835)

Tell your mom to stop letting people run through her basement.

There are typically two types of people (3, Insightful)

tlambert (566799) | about 2 years ago | (#41379715)

If you can listen to music and code at the same time, then you tend to do better in an open plan cube farm, but due to continuous partial attention, perhaps not so well as if you had some place quiet to cogitate.

If you can't listen to music because that's the part of your brain that also processes code, you tend to be at a disadvantage because there's no refuge in wearing headphones. I do OK in an open plan environment, but I do better in an office, since when I get into a deep problem, I tend to react to expected distraction. On the plus side, I can generally go fairly deeper than someone who is listening to music, or at least that's my personal anecdotal experience.

Generally speaking, in open plan cube farm companies, you can typically find a small conference room, or you can find a quiet corner of a lab, or you can grab a phone room, or you can work from home (which they tend to tolerate better than office-based companies) in these situations, so it's not impossible to make progress on deep problems.

Re:There are typically two types of people (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379927)

Do you know why, in some individuals, music processing and code generation are mutually exclusive ? I would like to know because I suffer from that to., Let me give you an advice, before I had an office, I had a refuge: a pair of noises cancelling headphones plugged into a muted jack.

Re:There are typically two types of people (2)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | about 2 years ago | (#41380093)

Lots of coders put on some of the most insane music to help them concentrate. I use music to drown out distractions. Distractions like ringing phones, people yapping about this or that, etc. (everything bad about an open floor plan). I also use music /for/ a bit of distraction - I can't concentrate as well on tasks in an anechoic chamber as I can with music playing.

I think it's a bit more complicated.

Re:There are typically two types of people (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41380123)

That's not totally true. In my case, I actually use that music and my headphones to cut out the loud people around me. My music doesn't try to crack jokes every few minutes or isn't constantly angry. That last part is more annoying as negativity impacts people more than jokes.

Re:There are typically two types of people (2)

jittles (1613415) | about 2 years ago | (#41380157)

Hmm, my boss and my girlfriend both think I do an amazing job of tuning aboslutely all noise out to focus on things. In fact, if I am reading, or coding, or even watching TV I can completely lose track of the fact that there are other people around. I often listen to music while I code and realize suddenly that I hadn't heard a sing song in 20-30 minutes. I think this comes from the fact that I grew up in a very large family, with a very noisy house. If you couldn't learn to tune everything out, you could never read, do homework, or even watch TV.

Re:High cost of open plan (1)

Kjella (173770) | about 2 years ago | (#41379887)

That would be true if everything you did at work was individual tests. That small banter tends to help coordination, I know more about what coworkers are doing or not doing, what they're making progress on, what they're stuck on and if we're on the same page with regards to what we're creating. I'm not so sure the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, but it's not that easy. Then again I'm pretty good at mentally blocking it as much as I need to.

Re:High cost of open plan (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41381919)

"That small banter tends to help coordination" : speak for yourself.

That statement is so typical of many people who find they can work with lots of noise. For some reason they fail to understand that not everyone is that way, and ANY noise causes a HUGE productivity hit.

There are times when you need the kind of environment you describe : if you are using Agile practices then you'll have those times, but forcing people to work like that all the time means you don't get the best, not even close to it, out of many, many people. Cube farms and open plan offices are a completely false economy for a significant fraction of the employee demographic.

I also find it amusing that in every place I have worked the people responsible for implementing cube farms have a private office with a door.

Re:High cost of open plan (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41380039)

Isn't it odd that you never hear people complaining, "I'm trying to concentrate here, so make a bunch of noise, OK?"

Von Neumann did, actually.

Pissed the hell out of Einstein when he'd play his phonograph loud as hell down at Princeton.

Re:High cost of open plan (2)

CrypticKev (1322247) | about 2 years ago | (#41381095)

DeMaro & Lister looked at the impact of open plan vs closed offices on productivity waaay back in 1987 in the first edition of "Peopleware". Alas senior management and the beancounters still seem to just look at the capital cost & seem to think partitions are cheaper. I guess they are when the company decides to downsize the cubes to squeeze more sheep into the farm.

So (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379549)

The older you get the better you off at multi-tasking. I would like to say

science schmience (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379577)

In our fast paced startup we need to have open lines of communication to enable agility.

Different topics in school (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379625)

Even if you focus on one topic for an hour and then switch to another one wastes a lot of time. It would be better to focus on one thing until you've learned it and then move onto the next one.

But, I'm not sure if school or work could be setup in that fashion.

Coooperative or Preemptive Multitasking? (5, Insightful)

zhiwenchong (155773) | about 2 years ago | (#41379627)

I find I'm very productive when I focus on short tasks and switch between them (sort of like how co-routines work).

I'm not productive when I'm doing more than one thing at a time.

Mod parent up. (4, Insightful)

khasim (1285) | about 2 years ago | (#41379753)

The trick to "multi-tasking" is to break the various tasks down into sub-tasks that can be completed in the time between interruptions.

The human brain is NOT good at focusing on two or more conscious tasks.

Re:Mod parent up. (1)

kaizokuace (1082079) | about 2 years ago | (#41381891)

don't forget to plan your task schedule to account for context switching. That usually takes time to gear for a new context.

Re:Coooperative or Preemptive Multitasking? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41380715)

Yep.. when CPU(brain) bound, keep working, once waiting(IO) bound, switch to another task.

I hope the experiment doesn't match the summary (4, Insightful)

fibonacci8 (260615) | about 2 years ago | (#41379645)

For what task(s) were the accompanying unrelated words used? If there weren't additional tasks used to measure the retention of the unrelated words, this doesn't test multitasking at all. Not to mention the 10%/30% drops do not represent a loss in productivity if the additional simultaneous tasks result in a net improvement. The summary sounds like a first grader put together the experiment, time to read the article...

How is this multi-tasking? (3, Insightful)

Kuukai (865890) | about 2 years ago | (#41379655)

It seems to me that they're comparing two different attention tasks. In multi-tasking, you would be concerned with how the brain juggles two or more things you're [i]trying[/i] to focus on, while this one is talking about how you deal with meaningless distraction. Related, maybe, but how is it multi-tasking?

Re:How is this multi-tasking? (1)

MindlessAutomata (1282944) | about 2 years ago | (#41382177)

Because cognitively speaking there is no real difference. Whether the additional information is something that is used in the overall task or not is really quite irrelevant to overall performance. After all, what is "relevant" to the task or not really is just our interpretation (in a sort of way).

Cue the "But *I'm* SPECIAL!" comments (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379665)

Just like idiots who think it's OK for THEM to use cell phones while driving.

Get this:

NO YOU'RE NOT.

Re:Cue the "But *I'm* SPECIAL!" comments (1)

dyingtolive (1393037) | about 2 years ago | (#41379763)

I am special. I have issues with mental hyperactivity. I literally think about two to three things at once, without even trying. If my work performance is any indicator, I can do it at least as well as people who don't.

I don't use my cell phone while driving though. There's a special place in hell for those people.

Re:Cue the "But *I'm* SPECIAL!" comments (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379907)

I can do it at least as well as people who don't.

Well that does make you special.

They have whole buses dedicated to people like you.

Re:Cue the "But *I'm* SPECIAL!" comments (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41381603)

"mental hyperactivity"

thats a fancy term for scatter-brain, usually they think they are doing so much better than everyone else due to how much extra effort they put into mundrane tasks, but in reality, they are too retarded to tell you the time.

Re:Cue the "But *I'm* SPECIAL!" comments (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41381873)

So you have no problem sucking a dick while taking it up the ass? There's a future for you in film.

Re:Cue the "But *I'm* SPECIAL!" comments (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41382213)

fuck you brad.arnett@notforhire.org
 
I hope you get your lying bitch ass spammed like a 50 cent ho.

But I get bored of one activity. (1)

InvisibleClergy (1430277) | about 2 years ago | (#41379667)

If I'm multitasking, it usually means that one of the activities I am doing is extremely inane. I'd like to see a comparison of how well people focus when they multitask, when the task is extremely inane and for a long period of time. Say, eight hours.

Wait till the girls at work hear this (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379683)

I can't wait till the office harpies try and pull the "but we can multitask" comment next ... I shal swiftly retaliate with this loaded in my "up yours" pistol

Invalid test (2, Insightful)

roc97007 (608802) | about 2 years ago | (#41379685)

Let's try this. You have four tasks. Each task has some dead time involved as you're waiting for something to happen. Subject 1 does each task sequentially. Subject 2 interleaves the tasks, doing work on the next task during the dead time in the previous task. Who finishes first?

Multitasking reduces the time you are waiting for a task to complete, and in many environments, despite the acknowledged penalty due to context switching, you'll come out ahead.

It seems like all they proved is that distraction is not good. (Well done, Captain Obvious.) That's not testing effectiveness of multitasking.

Re:Invalid test (1)

wonkey_monkey (2592601) | about 2 years ago | (#41379781)

It seems like all they proved is that distraction is not good. (Well done, Captain Obvious.) That's not testing effectiveness of multitasking.

Yeah, but now we know it's between 10% and 30% distracting! And now we know that, we can... um... ooh, shiny thing, brb.

Re:Invalid test (2)

roc97007 (608802) | about 2 years ago | (#41379831)

Yeah, ok, but it depends on what you mean by "multi". I have three PCs at work, and am typically working four or five jobs. But much of what I do is batch -- I set something up, let it run for awhile, and when its done it will sit there happily until I'm ready to look at it. The level of distraction is very low, but effectiveness would suffer greatly if I did all tasks sequentially.

You can arrange the experiment to prove almost anything, if you ignore that the way multitasking is managed is important.

Re:Invalid test (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379803)

Fair enough, but how many "multitaskers" in the common parlance sense of the word are really trying to utilize dead time? From what I see, it is often simply that the actual work is boring, and people like to procrastinate by throwing in some unrelated periods of goofing off, hoping that they will still be productive enough that the goofing off doesn't get them in trouble.

In other words, exactly what I'm doing right now ;-)

Re:Invalid test (1)

roc97007 (608802) | about 2 years ago | (#41379841)

As I said in another post, the way multitasking is *managed* is important. This test doesn't appear to take that into account.

Re:Invalid test (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379865)

>Subject 1 does each task sequentially. Subject 2 interleaves the tasks, doing work on the next task during the dead time in the previous task. Who finishes first?

Is there a startup time associated with changing tasks?

If there is none, and the tasks as simple as "Listen to music in the elevator" then "Go get a sandwich from the vending machine" you are right.

If the tasks were even as complicated as "Listen to music by selecting a new record and playing it" then "Go make a sandwich and eat it" every time you ask someone to switch tasks there's startup costs associated with it. Let's say it takes 2 minutes to get the record player going, and 3 minutes to make the sandwich, if you have someone switch tasks every time they listen to a full song or every time they eat half of the sandwich, you are not getting your money's worth out of them.

I don't know about you, but each time my concentration is broken it will add a few minutes to the length of time the task takes to start again because I now have to review where I left off. Depending on the complexity it might range from mere seconds to 15 minutes or even much more for something extremely complex.

Re:Invalid test (2)

RabidReindeer (2625839) | about 2 years ago | (#41379941)

Let's try this. You have four tasks. Each task has some dead time involved as you're waiting for something to happen. Subject 1 does each task sequentially. Subject 2 interleaves the tasks, doing work on the next task during the dead time in the previous task. Who finishes first?

Multitasking reduces the time you are waiting for a task to complete, and in many environments, despite the acknowledged penalty due to context switching, you'll come out ahead.

It seems like all they proved is that distraction is not good. (Well done, Captain Obvious.) That's not testing effectiveness of multitasking.

Unfortunately, that's NOT what they're hitting me with when I'm pressed to multi-task. That's the kind of multi-tasking I used to do before everyone had to be 110% efficient, back when I dumped decks of punched-cards in at the computer room window, sat down and run through printouts from the previous runs, went over to the keypunch and punched corrections to those jobs while waiting for the morning's submissions to come back.

We didn't use the word "multi-tasking" back then. Of course, we didn't use the word "pro-active" back then either, because we were supposed to be simply active. Get off my lawn.

These days, it's not dead time to be exploited, it's running from one fabricated disaster to the next, and a lot of the fabricated disasters are a direct result of being "pro-active" and trying to get too much accomplished during non-dead time. Too much "efficiency" means too little time to handle the unexpected. Or, for that matter, properly plan for it.

Re:Invalid test (2)

sjames (1099) | about 2 years ago | (#41380073)

Serial batch is not multi-tasking. Try doing those tasks while dealing with an asynchronous interrupt such as the phone or a drive-by manager.

Re:Invalid test (1)

roc97007 (608802) | about 2 years ago | (#41381253)

Serial batch is not multi-tasking. Try doing those tasks while dealing with an asynchronous interrupt such as the phone or a drive-by manager.

Everything you do is serial batch, if you adjust the granularity appropriately. If you're talking about excessively interrupt driven, I'd argue that's a special case of multitasking, and a singularly ineffective one.

Re:Invalid test (1)

thePowerOfGrayskull (905905) | about 2 years ago | (#41380119)

Multitasking reduces the time you are waiting for a task to complete, and in many environments, despite the acknowledged penalty due to context switching, you'll come out ahead.

That's executing sequentially and not "multitasking" - you're only ever doing one thing at a time.

Try completing all four tasks (or even just one) while holding a continuing conversation with someone, without gaps in either your work or the task. That is multitasking.
(And your success at it will depend on the nature of the task and your own capabilities .)

Re:Invalid test (2)

roc97007 (608802) | about 2 years ago | (#41381317)

Multitasking reduces the time you are waiting for a task to complete, and in many environments, despite the acknowledged penalty due to context switching, you'll come out ahead.

That's executing sequentially and not "multitasking" - you're only ever doing one thing at a time.

At a fine enough granularity, everything is sequential. If executing part of a task before going on to the next part of a different task is still doing tasks sequentially, then there is no such thing as multitasking, at least for reasonable definitions of the word.

I had a drive-by manager incident today, while I was sharing my screen with what is laughably called IT in India while also dealing with a customer issue in a communicator window. Realistically, you can only do one thing at a time, although with fast enough context switching it *seems* like you're doing multiple things at once. (Just exactly like the old monolithic time sharing systems -- remember those?) This in my experience only works for things you know cold. Stuff that requires deep thought isn't effective until you shoo everyone out of the cube.

Drive by management and phones ringing are a distraction from whatever task you're currently trying to complete. Everyone knows this -- why did we need to study it?

Re:Invalid test (1)

MindlessAutomata (1282944) | about 2 years ago | (#41381537)

Yes, it is, because the brain doesn't inherently know if a task is related, nor does it matter. The more things the brain must attend do, the worse it does. Play pinball, the more balls on the field the more likely you are to lose a ball due to attentional reasons. The brain doesn't generally do "true" multitasking; attentional control is shifted from one task to the other, perhaps very rapidly, but it generally is quite serial in how it works.

Re:Invalid test (1)

roc97007 (608802) | about 2 years ago | (#41381949)

Yes... well,,,,, yes... The reason I'm hesitating to provide complete agreement, is that I'm thinking reflexes are not serial. Otherwise you couldn't do something atheletic that had multiple simultaneous components.

I think it's safe to say that the cognitive things we do are serial, but the body... the reflexes... the lizard brain, whatever you want to call it, can very definitely be trained to do more than one thing at a time.

In the case of pinball, I would argue that you *can* manage multiple balls, if you've played long enough to adequately train reflexes instead of relying on the inherently slower forebrain.

But in general, you're right on target. What we call "multitasking" (with the cognitive part of the brain) isn't really doing more than one thing at a time. It's done by context switches, as you say.

Any gender differences? (2)

happyfeet2000 (1208074) | about 2 years ago | (#41379751)

Many ladies claim that men can only do one thing at a time...

Re:Any gender differences? (2)

mister_playboy (1474163) | about 2 years ago | (#41379905)

and? There nothing wrong with letting her handle the vibrator. You get better leverage with both hands free. :)

Re:Any gender differences? (1)

mr1911 (1942298) | about 2 years ago | (#41380025)

and? There nothing wrong with letting her handle the vibrator. You get better leverage with both hands free. :)

If you need a vibrator and both hands free, you're doing it wrong.

Re:Any gender differences? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41380593)

If you don't use a vibrator and anyone's hands are free, you're doing it boring.

How about try it with a bartender (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379809)

And stop using the general population for stupid tests.

Bartenders have no problem hearing everything in noisy crowds.

OH WAIT, but let's just forget those because "multitasking is bad mmkay".
Utter drivel.

This is also a bad example of multi-tasking.

Re:How about try it with a bartender (2)

MindlessAutomata (1282944) | about 2 years ago | (#41381601)

How much you wanna bet the bartender makes more errors the busier it gets and the more stimuli he has to attend to?

slashdot-dot-dice-dot-com is exciting! (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379849)

Lots of neat things could be in store... say what?

Vital functions (1)

kulnor (856639) | about 2 years ago | (#41379857)

So should I focus on making sure my heart is beating, breathing regularly, or digest food?

As someone knowing neurology: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41379877)

I can tell you, that this was very obvious to everyone who knows how neural nets work.

This is only, so we have observations matching our theories. We already were pretty much 100% sure about it before.

multitasking test (1)

NikeHerc (694644) | about 2 years ago | (#41379883)

You think you can drive and text at the same time and avoid causing an accident. You are wrong!

Please don't find out the hard way.

Re:multitasking test (1)

tlhIngan (30335) | about 2 years ago | (#41380459)

You think you can drive and text at the same time and avoid causing an accident. You are wrong!

Hell, forget driving, try something more basic, like walking. People walk into street furniture all the time (I'm sure YouTube has millions of people walking into lamp posts, benches, fountains and down stairs). Or even worse, walking onto the road in front of a car (happens quite often), usually with very tragic results. And these aren't the people who try to be oblivious to the outside world.

Driving is complicated, walking is not (and really, it doesn't take a lot of higher-order thinking, either to move your feet). If people can't even pay attention enough to walk down the street without bumping/tripping/etc into something (including cars), you expect them to do better when they're dealing with a complex vehicle that requires situational awareness?

Heck, you can tell who's on a cellphone these days - if they're a pedestrian, they walk much slower than the crowd and seem to be drunk at best. If they're driving, they're the ones unable ot keep up with traffic or jerk forward, stop, jerk forward, stop in slow moving traffic. (And they call themselves good drivers, too...).

Alas, while Darwin works fine for pedestrians, it doesn't work so much for drivers...

Re:multitasking test (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41381605)

You think you can drive and text at the same time and avoid causing an accident. You are wrong!

If it was that simple, nobody at all would think they can do it.

Most of the time, they can drive and text at the same time and avoid causing an accident, and do so on a daily basis. The tricky bit is that the risk occupies a space between "small enough to dismiss statistically" and "large enough to be obvious to everyone".

Stupid experiment (2)

Hatta (162192) | about 2 years ago | (#41379933)

Multitasking is doing two tasks at once. This is just distracting the kids. When people multitask, they generally get to choose when they do each task. In this experiment they just randomly hear unrelated words. This experiment has nothing to do with multitasking.

I'm not going to argue that multitasking is beneficial, but the real story is the abysmal quality of this research.

Re:Stupid experiment (1)

sjames (1099) | about 2 years ago | (#41380125)

Actually, multitasking has morphed into corporate speak for a noisy distracting cube farm where you're not allowed to turn the ringer on your phone off.

Re:Stupid experiment (1)

eulernet (1132389) | about 2 years ago | (#41380139)

Sorry, but you are wrong.

Understanding written or spoken words use the same parts of the brain, so this is multitasking.

It would be different if they were experimenting unrelated tasks, like reading and passively listening (without focus) to music.
You don't use the same parts of your brain for such tasks.

Re:Stupid experiment (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41381241)

Just because your brain isn't actively filtering and dividing attention between unintended stimuli like everyone else's doesn't mean /we're/ not multi-tasking. Also, did you find your definition of multi- in the Bible next to the value of Pi?

Re:Stupid experiment (1)

MindlessAutomata (1282944) | about 2 years ago | (#41381591)

This research is absolutely fine and you are the one that is utterly confused. What do you think human attention is? Cognitively speaking, the more you have to attend to, the more your attention must shift between all the stimuli. Also, you can't completely focus on what is hitting your ears unless you (to use your own poorly-chosen words) "choose" to attend to it, who cares if they chose the task to begin with or not?

Most of you are confusing multitasking on the overt functional level and the cognitive level; the two are obviously related but this experiment is more directly tied to the cognitive level. Of course "distracting kids!" is, cognitively speaking, multitasking, their brain is given another task to have to attend to in addition to the other(s).

Re:Stupid experiment (1)

raymorris (2726007) | about 2 years ago | (#41382341)

> , their brain is given another task to have to attend to in addition to the other(s). A task they are given no credit for completing, thereby ignoring half of the tasks completed. If I listen to a lecture while perusing email, sure I my process fewer emails. BUT I also listened to the lecture. The study ignores the value of having heard the lecture. Or say I ride the bus and write a report. I didn't ride any additional miles, so according to that study multi-tasking (writing while riding) didn't do me any good. You have to count BOTH tasks as complete, because you did TWO things. Saying the subjects didn't do a better job of task #1 completely misses the point of multi-tasking.

Summery is not describing multitasking (1)

wisnoskij (1206448) | about 2 years ago | (#41379951)

That is simply distraction. According to the summery they where only ever tasked with doing one thing, but in the "multitasking" phase they where distracted by extraneous noises.

Re:Summery is not describing multitasking (1)

MindlessAutomata (1282944) | about 2 years ago | (#41382215)

Which, cognitively speaking, is irrelevant. The brain has to focus between two different tasks. Filtering out "distractions" is a task. This research is fine and this is actually very standard sort of methodology in cognitive science/psychology and frankly I'm not even sure how this is even newsworthy at all.

context overlap (2)

eegad (588763) | about 2 years ago | (#41379979)

Without having read the article, it seems like this study might have a flaw. The brief description seems to imply an overlap in the two tasks: memorizing read words and hearing unrelated words. I'm not sure most types of multitasking are like this. I can context switch as long as there's enough switched. Besides, isn't real multitasking the ability to make progress on one task and then ignore it for a bit while making progress on another task? I hardly ever attempt to do *simultaneous tasks*.

multi tasking (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41380021)

When working on a IPO [ipoinitial...erings.com] there are so many things to do all at once that I feel like, my productiivity can sometimes take a hit. Multi tasking is overwhelming sometimes, so I can agree with the study that was made in Loisianan State University.

Not quite. (1)

thePowerOfGrayskull (905905) | about 2 years ago | (#41380071)

I can't listen to an audiobook and read textual content at the same time, because it's using the same 'context' in my brain. I also can't talk while listening to an audiobook (I miss book content) but I can sing. I can also listen to an audiobook and play a game on my tablet - depending on the skills involved in the game. And I retain what I've heard while doing well in the game.

Seems pretty clear that if you are focusing on one task, and you interrupt/overlap that task with contextually related data... you're going to suffer cognitive impairment.

What happens if the participants are asked to memoeize a sequence of colors or shapes while listening to words in the background?

Re:Not quite. (1)

neminem (561346) | about 2 years ago | (#41380597)

Even more than that - I've found that I can read just as quickly while listening to music as while not, but if the music has -singing-, my reading speed is much slower. Unless the singing is in a language I don't understand, in which case it's just as fast again.

Cough cough handsfree cell phones don't work cough (1)

rikkards (98006) | about 2 years ago | (#41380243)

Knew this years ago

Sorry, you were saying? (1)

broknstrngz (1616893) | about 2 years ago | (#41380651)

I was reading something in a different tab at the same time.

What's the big deal? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41380987)

I can drive, eat, change the radio, text and piss you off all at the same time.

It depends (1)

aNonnyMouseCowered (2693969) | about 2 years ago | (#41381119)

Like everything in life, it depends.

It depends on: a) What you mean by "task". Is a task an activity taken in isolation? Or a series of smaller related activities. Let's say you're a cook. You chop the onions while waiting for the broth to cook. Or you can do a totally unrelated activity like Facebook rather than "unproductively" stare at the oven for an hour.

b) Speed that you switch tasks. If you change tasks every few minutes, your productivity drops because you need to speed some time acquainting or reacquainting yourself with the new or suspended task. Extreme example: you're a farmer, obviously you should be doing something while waiting for the corn field to bloom.

c) Whether you can do some activities autonomically. Is breathing while talking multitasking? Is listening to music while editing a news report?

Re:It depends (1)

godrik (1287354) | about 2 years ago | (#41382219)

I usually consider human multitasking as "begin able to perform two precise tasks simultaneously in less time than it would take to do one and then the other." Or for the 'continuous' tasks it would be without loss of accuracy.

Clearly, I can not talk and watch a movie. And clealry my wife can not browse the web and watch tv.

what a load of hogwash (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41381319)

i can multitask with no problems, i can pat my head and rub my tummy at the same time. This study is wrong!

Title partially invalid (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41381495)

The title given here of "More Evidence That Multitasking Reduces Productivity" is not entirely correct. The linked site claims "Distracting sounds linked to diminished focus, memory" which is not the same as multitasking decreasing productivity. To measure the productivity of multitasking one would have to assume both tasks to be productive and measure both rather than one alone.

Good news for Windows 8 (1)

maxbash (1350115) | about 2 years ago | (#41381531)

Sound like Microsoft will like this news as Windows 8's interface makes multitasking difficult.
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