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Multitasking: Function or Fallacy?
by H. Les Brown

These days, virtually every employee, from entry level to executive, claims the need to multitask in order to attain optimum performance. At the same time, others assert that true multitasking is impossible. Who's right? This article, the first of a three-part series, explains what multitasking is and why people attempt it.

What is Multitasking?

The term 'multitasking' originated in the arcane world of computer design. In that context, multitasking refers to a computer operating system's ability to process input and respond to a user in the 'foreground,' while simultaneously performing other operations in the 'background.' For example, a user might start to download a large file, then open a new window to compose an email. Since the file continues to download, the computer appears to be doing multiple tasks simultaneously, or 'multitasking.'

Designers of computer architecture seem to have based their work - consciously or unconsciously - on the functioning of the human mind. The more psychologists learn about the brain's structures and operations, the more parallels with computer design are discovered. Both computers and humans store and manipulate bits of data using procedural 'know-how.' These basic similarities between the functions of the human mind and computer operations suggest we can learn a great deal about how our minds work by studying how computers multitask.

A computer's central processing unit (CPU) handles many thousands of operations each second. Much of the time, the CPU sits idle, because it processes much more quickly than the flow of conscious human thought. Until recently, most personal computers contained only one processor, which could work fast enough to jump rapidly from task to task. It would quickly process one job until that job required some slower operation (such as displaying results on-screen). At that point, it would leave that job to start on the next. Thus, single-processor computers create the illusion of multitasking by moving so quickly from one job to the next that our minds cannot detect the tiny gaps between the switch points—somewhat like the frames in a moving picture.

Larger computers (and some newer personal models) contain multiple CPU's. These machines use 'distributed processing' to break tasks down into small sections and feed them simultaneously to the multiple processors. This is true multitasking: Different processors are working on entirely different jobs at the same time. Large, complex programs run much faster as a result.

In computing and in business, multiple tasks may be performed serially (one after another) or in parallel (at the same time). For true parallel processing, however, both computers and humans need multiple processors. In a human sense, true multitasking requires multiple people (a team) who simultaneously work on a number of tasks. What we think of as multitasking in individuals is not truly simultaneous. Although we can breathe, blink and digest food all at the same time, these functions don't require conscious attention. Most work-related tasks require higher-level thinking, and we can't fully focus our conscious attention on one thing without taking it away from something else. Although we can jump quickly from one focus to another, we're not actually multitasking. Rather, we're doing serial processing (one job at a time) very quickly.

Why Do People Multitask?

For generations, business leaders have valued efficiency. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915) advocated breaking down an operation into its fundamental component tasks, and identifying the most efficient way to perform them. He trained workers to execute component tasks and gave rewards to the most productive performers. Taylorism reflects a mechanistic approach to workers (whose human needs interfered with efficiency) and a purely profit-based ethic (workers' only valued contribution was their time and energy, not their knowledge or creativity). Even today, machinery appears on corporate balance sheets as an asset while labor is classified as a liability!

As long as labor is seen as a liability (expense) rather than as an asset (intellectual capital), workers will feel pressure to be more 'efficient' and 'productive' in a Tayloristic sense. The only path to success in this paradigm is to work longer hours and accomplish more in each hour at work. However, workers will continue to switch quickly from one task to another, hoping their strategy will not adversely affect either task.

People attempt to multitask to keep up with the incredible speed and complexity of our society. New technological advances (fax machines, cell phones, email) exponentially speed up the work process. Unfortunately, these 'labor saving devices' don't really 'save' time or energy. They only enable people to accomplish more work in less time. The increased capacity made possible by technology has increased the pressure for productivity.

As the speed and pressure of performance increases, so do the demands for efficiency and effectiveness. These demands often conflict. For example, workers must absorb greater workloads resulting from downsizing, while simultaneously performing their regular duties cost-effectively and with an eye to customer service. People who tend to avoid conflict may attempt to multitask in the hope of managing an unreasonable workload. This allows them to report to everyone involved that all projects are underway, although each may be 'a little behind schedule.' Rather than diffusing conflict, this approach only augments it, because no one's expectations are being fully met.

Conclusion

We often use the term multitasking to describe our work behavior. However, if the task requires conscious attention, we humans only appear to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. In reality, we are directing our attention to a number of different focus points serially. When paying attention to one task, other tasks are left unattended, even if only momentarily. Multitasking is a natural response to the pressure for efficient, productive, low-cost labor. That pressure increases as workers confront shrinking resources and rising performance expectations.

The next article in this series will explore the mental mechanics of multitasking and examine the factors that impact its effectiveness.
 

H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC, Researcher for Business Coaching Worldwide and co-founder of ProActivation, is an innovator and change strategist who helps clients to effect deep and lasting change in their personal and professional lives. Read more about Les in the WABC Coach Directory. Les can be reached by email at lbrown@proactivation.com.

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