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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Stop Multi-tasking Before You Can't Anymore!

According to Stanford professor Clifford Nass, the more you multi-task, the worse you get at it, and it adversely impacts your ability to do all kinds of things a brain should do (like, you know, think).


Nass, author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, offers a number of tidbits in this video interview:

Anything that makes noise or flashes when something happens is designed to distract you and grab your attention. It's guaranteed to break your concentration and force you to switch tasks. If you are trying to focus, turn them off.

Team building exercises in companies are largely a waste of time. There are very simple things that help us feel bonded with one another.  (Something for me that needs more reflection.)

Us vs. Them is a great impulse in team building. The sense of "us" has a very powerful bonding effect for people. Nass cautions that it has to be thought through. If everyone is "us," then the sense of team is diluted somewhat.

People that multi-task all the time
•Less able to discern relevant from irrelevant
•Less able to manager their memory
•Less able to switch from task to task

Designing interfaces to encourage multi-tasking is the wrong thing to do because it creates bad thinking.

If you want to check email, you must spend 15 minutes with it. Force yourself to spend longer stretches of time when you switch tasks. This will essentially create a mindset of single-tasking instead.

We know more is coming, we just don't know always what it will look like.

We can't have everything. We can't handle the problem of "more" by doing many things simultaneously. We need to become more discriminating and make harder choices. Specifically, we need to stop saying "yes" to everything, and explicitly decide what we will NOT consume, particularly when new materials become available.

Random reinforcement is the best way to grab your attention - better than regular reinforcement. The brain is just wired that way. Turn off the all those alerts!

Instead, make a conscious decision about what you are going to do in each block of time. At the end of the block scan the possible input streams and possible activities, and focus on that for the next block of time. Nass suggests that those blocks are 15-30 minutes.

The more you try the multi-task the worse you are at it. By focusing in blocks of time, when you do nee to multi-task you will be better at it.

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  1. Thanks, Tim. I'm turning off my e-mail notification alert right now!


  2. Veerrrrry interesting research! This good information for managers, who often list "strong multi-tasking skills" as a core competency for positions they list. Big implications for structuring jobs, too. Nice post!

  3. I have started to try and block of time for email and not handle it as it comes in, because my job doesn't require me to handle it as it comes in (such as an order receipt person).

    What I loved was "Team building exercises in companies are largely a waste of time." I have been through a ton of team building exercises and not one time did I come out of it having felt like the team was any different. The same people (including myself) still migrate to the same people.

  4. Chris, what about all the other beeps and buzzes we have on all those handheld devices we carry.

    Mark, I was fortunate to visit a place today that understands that they can't multi-task well. They came up with a pull system from projects. They focus all there energy on a few projects and pull as resources become available. We do it in production why not with projects. Like you say it is unfortunate that some managers don't understand that multi-tasking is bad. Our systems evern reward this bad behavior. it is like rewarding fire fighting instead of problem solving.

    Matt, that team building comment stuck our to me, too. Is it really a waste? I have mixed feelings on this. I can see where you can do some more trival items to feel like a team. It does take more cultural elemets to make teamwork successful. Doesn't team building help to learn to solve problems?

  5. Having the Outlook noises and notifications turned completely OFF is such a good state of being.

    I recorded a podcast interview with Dave Crenshaw, author of "The Myth of Multitasking," and I should be releasing it the week of October 18 at leanpodcast.org.