The Cost of “Multitasking”

By James Kwak

“I’ve given lectures on incivility around the globe. When I ask audiences whether anyone considers sending e-mail or texts during meetings uncivil, almost everyone raises their hand.

“Then, when I ask whether anyone in the audience sends texts or e-mail during meetings, about two-thirds acknowledge the habit. (Presumably, there are still more who don’t want to admit it.)”

That’s Christine Pearson, from her article in The New York Times.

There are at least two things going on here. One, which Pearson discusses, is the myth of multitasking. Research shows that when you try to do two things at once, you only do one of them–or you do both of them, but your total productivity goes down. (You would get everything done in less time if you did things one at a time.) Yet most people stubbornly refuse to acknowledge this about themselves.

But what about the situation where the meeting you’re in really is useless: you’re not getting any value out of it, and you have nothing to add. Then isn’t it OK to check your email on your iPhone?

Maybe, but you’re still overlooking the cost of being rude to the people around you. That can affect you directly, via their negative opinion of you. Or you could just be contributing to making the world a more rude place.

And you’re probably making yourself less happy, because one component of happiness is mindfulness–being aware of the world around you. Another component of happiness is interacting with people–and no, email doesn’t count.

I don’t claim to be perfect. At Yale Law School, most professors allow laptops in class, and the vast majority of students use them. Not surprisingly, at any given moment, many of them are using them for something other than taking notes or looking at the class reading. I believe I have learned more in classes where professors ban laptops. I even prefer classes where professors ban laptops. Yet, when given the opportunity, I use a laptop–and I sometimes use it for things other than class. How’s that for irrationality?

42 thoughts on “The Cost of “Multitasking”

  1. Irrationality is part of being human! And re “one component of happiness is mindfulness” I can highly recommend Ellen Langer’s book with the title Mindfulness.

    Nice to have a post from you guys which is a little ‘off-topic’!

  2. Nice, simple example of irrational behavior and how, while it satisfies an urge, serves neither self-interest nor public interest.

    Irrational behavior is enemy #1.

  3. How’s that for irrationality?

    I believe the word you are looking for is “hypocrisy”.

    That said, I agree completely. The whole “multitasking” concept has turned an entire generation’s minds into rotten cabbages.

  4. You have forgotten one part of meeting rudeness: It might also be rude in many circumstances to require someone’s presence at a meeting where they have nothing to contribute and from which they will get nothing. While this doesn’t negate the rudeness of whipping out your iPhone or laptop or blackberry in a meeting and blatantly ignoring the presenter (two wrongs don’t make a right, after all), it does perhaps help to explain why many feel so entitled to their rude behavior: They’ve already been slighted.

  5. There are more than two things going on here.

    First, many bosses demand multitasking, whether they believe in it or not. If not, they simply expect you to work longer. If you tell a prospective boss you do not believe in multitasking, you will not get the job.

    Second, most people are just damned rude and selfish. People answer their cell phone on a date, ignore their little children to answer a meaningless call, block access to a store aisle because they are immersed in their cell phone conversation, etc.

    Third, most phone calls are of no value, but it makes people think they are important.

    Fourth, before cell phones some people would doodle, also signifying a lack of attention. Those people will probably not pay attention no matter what anyone does.

    Fifth, texting is almost universally a waste of time. Did you really need to send that incomplete and often error-filled text? Couldn’t you have waited a little longer to send a complete and correct email?

    Sixth, if you text while driving, you are a selfish and dangerous a**hole.

  6. Well said!
    As a relative newcomer to the US of A, I’m amazed that using a cell phone while driving is not illegal as it is in the UK. I’m all for the minimum of laws but this omission seems strange.
    Driving and phoning is extremely dangerous!

  7. Maybe, but you’re still overlooking the cost of being rude to the people around you. That can affect you directly, via their negative opinion of you. Or you could just be contributing to making the world a more rude place.

    Yes, but when “libertarians” (meaning anyone who basically thinks he has a right to do whatever he wants) say “do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t harm others”, they really only mean the first part.

    And you’re probably making yourself less happy, because one component of happiness is mindfulness–being aware of the world around you. Another component of happiness is interacting with people–and no, email doesn’t count.

    They of course don’t care about the happiness of others, and while they always claim they’re happy with themselves, they never seem happy. They always seem angry.

  8. Mr. Kwak wrote:

    “Yet, when given the opportunity, I use a laptop–and I sometimes use it for things other than class. How’s that for irrationality?”

    Multitask this. :-)


    BERLIN — “The President of the European Central Bank is quoted as saying that he still sees Europe’s economy in its deepest crisis since World War II or even World War I.”

  9. Mindfulness, interacting with others; James, you are cool. One must respect one’s self to respect others.

    A human can coordinate simultaneous actions, we cannot multi-task. This is machine intelligence attributed to people.

  10. Merkel: US $1 Trillion Rescue Package Only Buys Time

    Sunday, May. 16, 2010 2:43PM EDT – Globe & Mail – excerpts

    “German chancellor calls own country’s current debt level unsustainable

    “We know if the euro fails, then more is failing,” the paper quoted her as saying.”

  11. Libor Increases, Euro Falls

    5/16/2010 04:33:00 PM – CalculatedRisk

    “Concern about the exposure of European banks to the debts of weaker countries in the eurozone is … increasing the amounts banks charge to lend to each other.

    The London inter-bank offer rate, or Libor, has risen in recent weeks to its highest level since last August … which is significant because the rate has served as a leading gauge of stress during the financial crisis.

    * My understanding is that the “Libor Rate” a financial metric, a barometer, for the shape of things to come. The Baltic Dry Index also suggests caution.

  12. Makes me think of my favorite TED speaker. Dan Ariely loves analyzing irrational behavior and makes for hilarious talks.

  13. I hate delivering a talk or lecture and having listeners ues their blackberry to fact-check my data in real time; laptop google search opposing points of view, or texting others in the room to criticize or run a parallel narrative. Regardless it happens, and any authoritative presenter is better for today’s electronics. We are perfected by environments that assure when the signal is flawed, the noise goes up.

  14. Agreed. I call BS every time anyone I know tries to tell me they’re “great at multi-tasking”. I need a quick, decisive test I can issue to them on the spot that can show them that they’re not part of the 1-2% of the population that can actually do it well. I have no fantasies of being good at it, and it makes for some awkward moments of painful honesty during job interviews.

    “Can you multitask? We need multitaskers.” “No, I can’t. But if you’re being honest with yourself, you can’t either and neither can the vast majority (or possibly all) of your current employees.”

  15. There are some meetings where a complex topic is being discussed where using your laptop can be helpful. You might be looking up a reference or looking up a circuit that is relevant to the discussion at hand. Or you can be generating relevant data real-time in the meeting.

    That said, those instances have to be far outnumbered by random email or web surfing.

  16. The whole concept of multi-tasking, I suspect, arose with development of multi-tasking computers. Except that computers with a single CPU do not multi-task, that requires parallel processors–read brains. In reality computers divide their time among all of the tasks by time-slicing, i.e., allocating small slices of time for each task in its queue–they are just much faster than humans. However, we all have been annoyed when the computer has too many tasks in its queue and performance takes a huge hit.

  17. On the TV show the Marriage Ref one women allegedly was texting a friend while having sex with her husband.

  18. I always say that computers “multitask” by switching between tasks very fast doing a little of the task each time. And, even in computers, there is the overhead of storing away where you are in the task before switching and then refreshing the context (getting back up to speed) on the task when restarting it. If computers didn’t do this really fast, they would get bogged down just like the human brains. Even parallel processors need some overhead to stay in synch and manage memory and I/O.

  19. I don’t have any references or links here, but I have heard from respectable sources that women are good at multi-tasking, at least doing 2 things at the same time. I’m not sure about 2+. I do happen to think that the majority of males are incapable of multi-tasking (I know it to be a fact in my individual case) and I have had female friends who amazed me the things they could do at what certainly seemed to be a simultaneous time to me observing it.

    I would guess the above paragraph is not very insightful and the vast majority of unscientific anecdotal observations by people in general would support me on that.

  20. Yeah but modern computers can genuinely multitask at minimal performance penalty. Modern humans on the other hand… we’re still working with a brain thousands of years old.

  21. Paul,
    It is illegal in SOME states, depends the state. Maybe roughly 15 states now have no laws on it. Some backwards states are still dragging their feet. Honestly I have mixed feelings on it myself. I think if I ever got pulled over or fined for it I would be pretty ticked off at the police officer. But people who do it in heavy traffic are pretty crazy. In the end I think the laws will become obsolete because the “bluetooth” technology and all that.

  22. Ted, thanks for that clarification. (Newly) living in Arizona so had assumed that what I was seeing was common across the country.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could rescind many laws in favour (sorry favor!) of common sense!

  23. Thanks, Paul. This comment flowed naturally after the fun dustup over libertarianism we’ve been having at Naked Capitalism the last few days.

    Congrats on your blog too.

  24. It should be illegal in all states. Light traffic is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. I have seen people on their cell phone swerve across five lanes of traffic when the genius realizes his exit is close-by. I have almost been run over a few times in parking lots of grocery stores by people driving and talking on a cell phone. I have had trouble passing jerks on their cell phone weaving back-and-forth across their lane.

    You are a typical cell phone user, thinking that the sole problem is the physical act of using a pocket phone. You are wrong. Many studies have shown that having a conversation where the other party is unaware of the conditions around your car is the problem. Hands-free, bluetooth, or phones imbedded in the brain will not change that. See my two blog posts for links to actual studies, and

  25. I’m retired, not in a classroom, so “multitasking” failure by those who text, cell-talk, eat, put on make-up while driving a car is a public safety issue, not a question of rudeness. Defensive driving must now include glancing at oncoming or adjacent drivers to see if they are engaged in something other than driving.

  26. Spot on. Requiring someone to be at a pointless meeting is a form of bullying. Rude or not, getting something useful done, at a meeting you shouldn’t have to attend, is just being productive. Of course, the next form of bullying is to prohibit the use of electronic devices at the meeting that you required everyone to attend.

  27. I don’t think not paying attention at meetings is anything new. As a former CPA, I had to attend 40 hours of continuing education classes a year. Most were presented by instructors who were working CPAs and not professional speakers.

    A lot of people in those classes would pull out a newspaper and read it while the instructor was speaking. I witnessed one of my sons, who was always bored in school, with a book on his lap and partially in his desk during 6th grade classes. Yet when called on by a teacher he could answer the question. Multitasking or just lucky, I don’t know.

    It can be called multitasking or bored silly. I do believe that in a meeting the speaker deserves some respect unless he/she is using that time to brag about his/her accomplishments rather than actually asking for the opinions of those in attendance.

    I am jealous that I had to wait until I got home to contact a friend rather than to text them at any time.

  28. One of the most fascinating things I have ever seen was through a one-way-mirror while my son was doing an evaluation exercise. While he was listening to the psychologist read a story he was playing with a toy where you let a marble go and it goes through all the holes, landing at the bottom. As he listened and then retold the story he wandered around the room, found silly putty to stuff up the holes, lined up all the marbles and took out the putty top to bottom. The marbles all let go down the ramps at exactly the time he finished a perfect retelling of the story. If I could have only heard I never would have guessed the marble thingie was going on. If I could have only seen I never would have guessed there was a story going on. Perfect multi-tasking.

    My guess is the multi-tasking thing is just a self-fulfilling myth – we can’t do it because we are told we can’t. I have noticed that the young kids (the term kids now includes folks in there 20’s) handle all of these new kinds of noise far better than their elders – they grew up doing it.

  29. I believe most studies would prove that multitasking is actually less efficient in humans that is basically clever people cannot be multitasking. If you are clever you do things one at a time…
    Beware in any case also of women or perhaps our own wives claiming that women are better at multi-tasking. I have never seen such evidence or correlation between multitasking and sex.

  30. “Multi-taksing” is like juggling.

    In juggling, you really only do one thing at a time– catch, then throw. To be a successful juggler, you need to be able to throw accurately (with both hands!), so that the object comes down in precisely the right place at the right time. You also need to be able to transition quickly to the next task.

    The pattern is catch, throw; catch, throw; catch, throw– one thing at a time, repeated quickly. Once it is thrown, it is gone. The next catch is coming quickly.

    To be a spectacular juggler, you need to be able to add complexity — catch two or more objects at the same time, then throw them accurately– and variety– change the trajectory,timing and difficulties of the throws and catches; use different objects

  31. Well, on the other hand not every task requires your maximal attention. If you can multitask smaller duties, you will have more time to focus on the main ones.
    But under the described circumstances (meeting) it’s really rude. No meeting is completely useless – you can stand up and reveal WHY it is boring and HOW to change it. Maybe you will be able to turn it finally into pretty constructive one.

  32. Can’t resist this ;-)

    “I have never seen such evidence or correlation between multitasking and sex.”

    I’m sure many women would describe their male lovers in similar terms.

    Sorry – I’ll go and hide now! Paul.

  33. To pile on: isn’t the ability to concentrate intensely (as is, ignore other tasks) one of the signs of very high intelligence? Doesn’t that suggest that paying attention to several things at once should be correlated with, um, low intelligence?

    Re: your irrational use of laptops: that’s really a question about the effective use of authority. It’s possible for the professor to use her authority to increase the rationality of everyone’s behavior. The will is still free (one can always break the rules), but the playing field has been tipped in favor of the rational thing to do.

  34. Is it possible that when you do a task you can use say 50% of effort to complete 80% of the task? And in order to get that extra 20% you have to spend another 50% in effort? If that is the case, can I do two things at once, getting 80% done on both things with 100% effort?

    If you ask many businesses they don’t need the 100% solution. 80% would be great. If they know they can get two 80% solutions instead of one 100% solution they may be very happy. (Yes, I know this may not work for all industries and products.)

    Do you think that any of our nation’s productivity over the years have been based on this idea of the 80% solution with the use of multitasking? Sure it is.

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