Category Archives: Technology

Multitaking Part 4: Practical Tips: How To Do It, Do It, Do It, Do It Right

Boy In FlightPerhaps you remember the story from a few years ago. Air traffic control lost contact with Northwest Airlines Flight 188 about halfway through the flight. Just as the US Air Force was scrambling jets to check on the plane, contact was reestablished, but by now the plane was more than 200 kilometers past Minneapolis and was over Wisconsin. The pilots were on their personal computers going over future flying schedules instead of paying attention to their job of flying the plane. The two pilots were fired and lost their flying licenses. Two careers lost to multitasking.

To recap this series, we looked at some interesting facts about multitasking in Part 1, why multitasking can be bad in Part 2, and some good things about multitasking in Part 3.

To finish this series, today I want to suggest some good ways to multitask and then finish this post with a great suggestion for putting all of this together to improve productivity!

Multitask With Low Cognitive Load Tasks

Scott Belsky, in his book, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality” suggests the multitasking is a myth and that sequential tasking is better. He proposes that through good organization, you should move quickly between tasks and projects and concentrate on one task at a time.

Also, as I mentioned in Part 3, it is great to multitask as long as only one task is mentally taxing and the rest are low-cognitive load tasks. It is definitely worth the read if you missed it.

Stop Interruptions

Robert Half International, the prestigious staffing service provider, claims that the average employee only works at about 50% of capacity, much of that due to distractions.

A study* just released this week found that interruptions greatly diminish the quality of work produced by an employee. They said, ”Interruption can cause a noticeable decrement in the quality of work, so it’s important to take steps to reduce the number of external interruptions we encounter daily.”

Some great ideas to stop interruptions:

  • Turn off your cellphone for uninterrupted work periods;
  • Turn off email programs and only check email once every hour or two;
  • If you have an appointment looming, set a timer so you don’t have to be distracted by making sure you don’t miss your appointment;
  • Turn off music with words while working; (Some scientists think music without words is okay and distracts only a little or not at all.)
  • Place a sign on your door to let coworkers know under what circumstances you can be interrupted. It can be like a traffic light. It is okay to interrupt you 1.) freely (green light); 2.) only if it is pretty important (yellow light); or 3.) only in an emergency (red light).


It is almost indisputable that focus is the key to higher levels of quality and quantity of work. Scott Belsky, in his book, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality,” says, “Create windows of nonstimulation. To achieve long-term goals in the age of always-on technology and free-flowing communication, create windows of time dedicated to uninterrupted project focus.”

My post from last year has some great suggestions for this.

For a humorous look at how to focus, watch this wonderful TED Talk from Paolo Cardini.

The following series of questions come from the excellent book, “The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” by Gary Keller. He proposes asking, “What’s the ONE Thing I can do, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

These are his focusing questions:

  • For My Spiritual Life: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to help others?”
  • For My Physical Health: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to achieve my diet goals?”
  • For My Personal Life: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my skill at _______?”
  • For My Key Relationships: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to improve my relationship with my spouse?”
  • For My Job: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to ensure that I hit my goals?”
  • For My Business: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to make us more competitive?”
  • For My Finances: “What’s the ONE Thing I can do to increase my net worth?”


The ironic thing is that more focus also necessitates more rest. I strongly suggest periods of complete focus, followed by short periods of rest to be most efficient at work tasks.

This is backed up by recent research.** This study suggested that short periods of Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing (WILB) actually improved productivity in employees under 30 years old. These activities include YouTube, Facebook, or internet surfing. Yeah! Concentrate on work for a while and then watch a YouTube video!

Putting It All Together

So, to really be productive, we should

  • stop bad multitasking; only one high-cognitive load task at a time
  • do more good multitasking; do low-cognitive load tasks in the background
  • turn off distractions
  • focus
  • rest for short periods between periods of concentrated focus

One interesting method brings these ideas together. Many of you may have heard of something called the “Pomodoro Technique.”

It is a time management plan where you

  • plan what your task is
  • work in a very focused manner for 25 minutes while setting a timer
  • when the timer goes off, you stop and rest for 3-5 minutes
  • set another timer for 25 minutes and focus again
  • after 4 “pomodori” take a 15- to 20-minute break.

There’s even an app for that! See the Vitamin R App if you are interested.

I hope you have enjoyed this series on multitasking and have learned some valuable things. Just in case you were wondering, because of the airline incident I mentioned earlier, the FAA has put some new rules into effect to keep pilots from multitasking while at the controls of an airplane. Good news, don’t you think?

*Cyrus Foroughi et al. Do Interruptions Affect Quality of Work? Human Factors, July 2014 DOI:10.1177/0018720814531786

**Brent L. S. Coker. Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing. Human Performance, 2013; 26 (2): 114 DOI:10.1080/08959285.2013.765878

Multitasking Part 3: Good Multitasking: The Good News Is…It Isn’t All Bad

Comic cartoon of a man multitaskingThe 100 Kilometer Error
I was driving with a friend and was really enjoying our conversation. The only problem was that I was too engrossed in our discussion, missed a turn, and didn’t discover my mistake until we had gone 50 km in the wrong direction.

That is the downside of multitasking. Today, in the 3rd installment of this series, I want to talk about the good things about doing multiple activities at one time.

In Part 1, I shared some interesting and surprising facts about multitasking.

In the last post, I mentioned some startling research that shows just how bad multitasking can be.

Today, I want to talk about the good things about multitasking. Next time, I will share some practical tips on how you can increase your productivity and your life by multitasking well.

Research First

While there are dozens, and maybe hundreds, of studies that show the downside of multitasking (for example, a 40% drop in productivity*), at least 2 recent studies have highlighted some positive things about it.

Improved Judgement
Researchers in a study from the University of Basel** found that sometimes the cognitive load that results from multitasking improved performance because it forced the participants to switch cognitive strategies and use a more efficient action plan to solve problems.

Multi-sensory Integration
In another study***, researchers found that participants who were heavy media multitaskers were less distracted by an unexpected sound when trying to complete other tasks. They said, “Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing.”

That is the good news! It should be noted that these are 2 small studies that point to the good effects of multitasking while nearly all of the other research casts a very harsh light on trying to manage several jobs at one time. But, we are highlighting the good in this blog, so rejoice over these 2 studies!

When Multitasking is Good

Despite all of the bad things I have said about it, we should be multitasking.

As I said earlier, in the next post I’ll share many practical tips on effective multitasking, but I want to talk about good multitasking for a moment here.

It actually is a great idea to do several things at once as long as only one of them is important and mentally taxing.

Multitasking is a fantastic way to get many things done simultaneously as long as all but one of them is low-priority and low-cognitive load.

The other day I was answering email (highly cognitive) while I was downloading a computer update (low cognitive), baking a cake in the oven (low cognitive), washing a load of clothes (low cognitive), and had music playing the background (uses a different brain center than writing skills). I have found, personally, that I need to set timers so my clothes don’t sit in the washer after it is finished and my cake isn’t set on fire because I forgot to take it out. I have several timers and often have 3-4 low cognitive tasks on the “back burner” while concentrating on one important task.

One of my favorite forms of multitasking is listening to audiobooks while I exercise. I learn something while I am distracted from the physical pain and drudgery of the exercise. I call that win/win.

As long as you do it right, multitask away!!!

*Rubinstein, Joshua S.; Meyer, David E.; Evans, Jeffrey E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

**J. A. Hoffmann, B. von Helversen, J. Rieskamp. Deliberation’s Blindsight: How Cognitive Load Can Improve Judgments. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612463581

***Kelvin F. H. Lui, Alan C.-N. Wong. Does media multitasking always hurt? A positive correlation between multitasking and multisensory integration. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2012; DOI: 10.3758/s13423-012-0245-7

Multitasking Part 2: Bad Multitasking: Those Who Shouldn’t, Do It the Most

One Man copyI can picture the scene in my head to this day. I was in a meeting in Asia several years ago and a colleague in the meeting was participating in the discussion while writing email and reading the open book on his lap. I was impressed!

But should I have been?

In my previous post I shared some interesting facts about multitasking. If you haven’t read it yet, plead go read it now and come back.

This post will concentrate on the downside of multitasking. There is so much research coming out lately, pointing to the fact that it is just not good for us. I will highlight a few of the more interesting and insightful studies.

Why Most People Multitask

The latest research indicates that there are four main reasons why the heaviest multitaskers do so.

  • They have a lack of restraint or self-discipline. People who are more impulsive and are more sensation-seeking tend to participate in it the most.
  • They are easily distracted. Researchers found that the heaviest multitaskers did do several things at once to get more done, but because they were not able to block out distractions and focus on one task at a time. They were, in fact, really bad at doing several things at once even though they tended to do it the most.
  • They are overconfident of their ability to multitask. Even though the heaviest multitaskers scored lower on multitasking measurement tests, they scored themselves significantly higher in their ability than they actually were.
  • They wanted to impress other people. One of the other main reasons cited for multitasking was because they had observed others doing it, were impressed, and wanted to impress others.

As one researcher* stated, “We showed that people who multitask the most are those who appear to be the least capable of multitasking effectively.”

In another study out of Stanford**, researchers expected that heavy multitaskers would be better than average on three skills important to effective multitasking—filtering information, switching between tasks effectively, and keeping a high working memory. They were shocked to find that the heaviest multitaskers were the worst at all three tasks. They said, “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

Even worse, the these participants felt great about their achievements and believed they were getting more accomplished, even though they scored worse than those who were singletasking. Professor David Strayer, adds, “The people who are most likely to multitask harbor the illusion they are better than average at it, when in fact they are no better than average and often worse.”

The Real Irony With Those Who Multitask Less

Meanwhile, the people who really are good at multitasking seem to be the ones who do it less.

Two things were true about the 25% of people who scored highest on the multitasking tests:

  • They spent less time doing it
  • They were better at it

About the only bright spot in all of this is that the Stanford study found that since music is processed in a different part of the brain than other tasks, it seems to be okay to listen to music while doing something else.

Enough of the bad news! In my next post, I will share the good news about how multitasking can be good. See you then!

*David M. Sanbonmatsu, David L. Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward, Jason M. Watson. Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (1): e54402 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

**Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, Anthony D. Wagner. Cognitive control in media multitaskers.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; September 15, 2009.

Multitasking Part 1: Are You Really As Good As You Think You Are?

Young woman driving , applying lipstick and speaking on her smart phoneTrue story: A friend hit a mailbox. She couldn’t understand why, but she said she was driving a car while putting on makeup, eating breakfast, and talking on the phone at the same time.

It seems that all of us are multitasking these days and the younger generations have seemingly built their lives on perfecting the fine art of multitasking.

Is it good? Is it bad? The answer is “Yes! Multitasking is both good and bad.”

This is the first part of a 4-part series on multitasking. I think you will find this series to  be very interesting and extremely helpful. Here is the plan:

Part 1: What Multitasking Is and Some Interesting Facts About It

Part 2: Bad Multitasking: Those Who Shouldn’t Multitask, Do It the Most

Part 3: Good Multitasking: The Good News Is, Multitasking Isn’t All Bad

Part 4: Practical Tips: How To Do It, Do It, Do It Right

A Computer and Your Brain

The term “multitasking” first was coined in the 1960’s to describe when multiple tasks were being performed by one CPU (computer brain). The word eventually also came to be used to describe when a person was performing multiple tasks at one time. It is a bit of a misconception, however, because neither a CPU nor your brain can actually do more than one thing at a time.

Then why does it seem like we can multitask? Like a computer, our brains are capable of performing multiple tasks so quickly in succession it seems they are being performed at the same time. The big difference between the human brain and the computer CPU is that a computer is very good at handling the “shut off” and “start up” procedures necessary to switch back and forth between two or more tasks. Our brains are really not very good at it. (More interesting scientific facts about this in Part 2.)

“Multitasking is a lie because nearly everyone accepts it as an effective thing to do, but when you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or won’t do either well. Multitasking is an effective way to get less done.” (Gary Keller in his book, “The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results” -emphasis mine.)

Multitasking Is Killing Us

We are literally dying from multitasking—one fast way, and one slow way.

The fast way to a multitasking death—multitasking while driving a car.
Here are the facts:

  • Texting while driving makes a driver 23x more likely to crash.
  • Drivers talking on a cell phone are 4x more likely to have a car accident.
  • In 2012 in the USA, 3,328 people were killed in distraction-related crashes.
  • In 2012 in the USA, almost half a million people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.

The slow way to a multitasking death— higher tension, blood pressure, and stress from multitasking.

“There is data to show that multitasking leads to more distractibility and poor concentration…When we’re in speed mode, we have to be more on edge and alert, which naturally creates tension and agitance…We also would do well to place limits on the times during which we multitask.” (Marc Schoen in his book, “Your Survival Instinct Is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear, Make Better Decisions, and Thrive in the 21st Century.”)

Some Interesting Facts About Multitasking

Multitasking Is Killing Productivity
While at work, the average American:

  • checks email more than 11 times a day
  • open their inbox every 20 minutes
  • took 15 minutes to return to their previous task after checking email

Because of this, some scientists estimate that the average American focuses on one task only about 15 minutes per hour.

Women Really Are Better At Multitasking!
Some recent researchers* have found that under certain conditions the old adage really is true: women really are better at multitasking than men.

Well, I’m don writing this article, so it’s time for me to turn off my music, shut down my email, and quit texting. I think I need to read my next post about why, when, and where we shouldn’t multitask! Stay tuned.

*Gijsbert Stoet, Daryl B O’Connor, Mark Conner and Keith R Laws. Are women better than men at multitasking? BMC Psychology, October 2013

Disconnecting to Connect

confused-dreamstime_773906-SmallerIf you’ve seen any business or tech news lately you probably have seen the big story coming out of Yahoo. Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo, is putting an end to all telecommuting at the company and forcing the employees to work only out of the office. They are going to actually commute to work! This is big news because it bucks a huge trend that has been happening in the last few years and many expect to continue.

Opinions on the matter are all over the map. Some people think she’s crazy, others think she’s out of touch, some expected it to be only temporary, and still others think it will change the way business is done in America in the future.

Personally, I don’t know if any of that is true. It’s hard for me to imagine that this will put an end to telecommuting or even slow down the trend. I think in our increasingly interconnected world, more and more telecommuting is inevitable.

What it does say to me is the importance of culture. One of the main reasons Yahoo is making this move, according to their press release, is to repair the “cultural issues” within the company.

This sounds incredibly reasonable to me. It also points out a few very important features of culture that we always need to keep in mind and be aware of.

  • Culture is taught. People are born with few, if any, genetic predisposition toward culture. It is never a nature versus nurture issue. It is nearly all, and some would say completely all, a matter of learning. We learn culture from our parents, other family members, teachers and other authority figures, and friends.
  • Culture takes contact. In order to learn the culture we have to spend time with people from a different culture. Marissa Mayer knows that in order to change the company culture she has to have real people together in real situations having times of real contact.

What that means for us is that we can never really learn culture from a book. If we want to be truly multicultural we must expose ourselves to people from another culture and spend time with them trying to learn from them. You can’t do that telecommuting.

  • Culture is important. Without question Marissa Mayer knew that she was going to get a lot of backlash by changing the telecommuting policy. And she did. People inside and outside the company are very upset and confused. The decision seems to go against one of the newer societal beliefs: technology is always good.

I love technology and enjoy using it to its full extent. But in this case, one of the leading technology companies seems to be admitting that culture is more important than technology. At least for a while. My guess is that once Yahoo “fixes” its cultural issues it will jump back into telecommuting. But for right now it appears that developing the right company culture is more important.

I hope we all can take a lesson from Yahoo and realize how important culture really is!