If Multitasking Is Impossible, Why Are Some People So Good at It?

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"Multitasking means screwing up several things at once," somebody once said, wrongly. In fact, we don't do many things at once, ever. We do many things in quick succession. And some of us are very good at it.

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Everybody multitasks. We have conversations while driving. We answer email while browsing the Web. It's hard to imagine living any other way. What would be the alternative, removing the seats from your car to ensure you only drive alone? Block every website not named Gmail? A world of constant single-tasking is too absurd to contemplate.

But science suggests that multitasking as we know it is a myth. "Humans don't really multitask," said Eyal Ophir, the primary researcher with the Stanford Multitasking study. "We task-switch. We just switch very quickly between tasks, and it feels like we're multitasking."

In other words, you feel like you're multitasking when you're on the Web. But if you slow down and think about your attention, you'll agree that answering email while browsing the Web is impossible. You answer email. Then you browse. Then back to email. Then again with the browsing. Like the pictures in a flip book, our focus is discrete. It is only with time and motion that our fluttering attention gains the illusion of multitasking.

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In 1946, the world was introduced to history's first general-purpose electronic computer: ENIAC, nicknamed the "Giant Brain." At the time, the word multi-tasking did not exist. It first appeared in a magazine called Datamation in 1966, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the following sentence: "Multi-tasking is defined as the use of a single CPU for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs." 


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Over the next 65 years, computers have become multitasking wizards, with the ability to download movies while playing music while running complex programs and executing a million other functions we take for granted, yet in 1946 would have seemed like magic. Meanwhile, the people operating these wondrous machines have not gotten any better at multitasking over the last 60 years. If anything, we have gotten worse.

In The Shallows, a book about memory and the Internet, Nicholas Carr said the Web was changing the way we think, read and remember. Humans are hunters and hoarders of information. We seek, we find, we remember. If the Internet is helping us seek and find data, it is hurting our ability to absorb and retain it. Before the Internet, the theory goes, our attentions expanded vertically. With the Internet, our focus extends horizontally, and shallowly.

Why do we think we're so good at something that doesn't exist? We compensate for our inability to multitask with a remarkable ability to single-task in rapid succession. Our brains aren't a volley of a thousand arrows descending on an opposing army. Our brains are Robin Hood. One man with one bow firing on all comers, one at a time.

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If multitasking is a myth, it might come as a surprise that some people are good at it. It turns out that people who multitask -- or rapid-fire-single-task -- less are better at firing the next arrow of attention at a new task. A famous media multitasking study found that "heavy" multitaskers are more susceptible to distractions and therefore worse at task-switching effectively. This makes sense if you consider multitasking to be "the art of paying attention." Heavy multitaskers roll out the welcome mat for every new distraction. Of course they can't pay attention to things. Attention isn't their intent.

Attention is important. And light multitaskers might be better at preserving their attention. But some people value distraction. They knowingly seek the thrill of the new. In an interview with Boing Boing, Ophir made the essential point that it's hard to determine what kind of workers are most "effective" at multitasking until you determine what they want from their work.

"I think heavy multitaskers are not less effective -- they simply have a different goal," he said. "Where you might say traditionally we value the ability to focus through distractions, they are willing to sacrifice focus in order to make sure they don't miss an unexpected, but rewarding, surprise. As a result, they might do worse in the office scenario I described, but they might also be the first to slam on the brakes in the car/mobile phone scenario."

The Web is perfect for indulging our multitasking, which is really nothing more than the rapid switching of tasks, because it promises something new and fast. Science suggests that the secret to thriving in an age of universal distraction isn't to avoid distractions, but to distract ourselves smartly. The National University of Singapore found that workers who spend 20 percent or less of their time browsing the Web are 9 percent more productive than those who never go online at all. Most of what we know about attention suggests that our focus comes with strict limits. Sure, we can binge on a project, but working too hard for too long results in a hangover of productivity. Short bursts of attention punctuated with equally deliberate breaks are the surest way to harness our full capacity to be productive. 

The upshot is that it's pointless to say that one type of worker is good at multitasking, and another is bad. Instead, there is a limited supply of this thing called attention, and a million ways to divide, manage, and preserve it. For some people, a state of deep focus is office nirvana. For others, perpetual distraction is an office necessity. You fire your arrows the way you want.

Now get back to email. 

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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