August 23, 2010

Quality Digest

Work, Switch, Multitask

By Taran March

Read the full story below or view it at the Quality Digest website.

One of the more intense information wildfires to sweep through media channels recently is the news that multitasking does more harm than good. Or does it? This fire seems to burn both ways.

In his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Minds (W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), technology writer Nicholas Carr laments the erosion of sustained concentration due to the high-speed flood of instantaneous information. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” he writes. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

But wait. What about that University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) study that concluded searching the Internet helps stimulate—maybe even improve—brain function? A host of cognitive switches are triggered, apparently ones that remain off while reading a book. “A simple, everyday task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults,” says Gary Small, Ph.D., director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center and author of the book, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind (William Morrow, 2008). Other studies indicate that even basic video games can improve performance of visual attention and memory.

Excuse my ignorance, but is surfing the net or killing electronic space aliens multitasking?

Clifford Nass, director of the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab at Stanford University, defines multitasking as using multiple sources of information. “We’re not talking about watching the kids and cooking and stuff like that,” he says. “It involves looking at multiple media at the same time.”

During a recent National Public Radio interview, Nass reported that this sort of multitasking negatively affects other brain skills such as analytical reasoning, long-term memory, ignoring what’s irrelevant, and quickly switching tasks. Ironically, chronic multitaskers test out to be rather bad at every aspect of multitasking.

However, “societal forces encourage multitasking,” says Nass, so even if lab tests keep churning out warning data, “cultural forces encourage the expectation that people will respond instantly.... In a lot of workplaces, we see people are being told, ‘You must answer your e-mail within 15 minutes,’ or, ‘You must keep your chat windows open.’ Well, that means you’re stopping what you’re doing.”

OK, so maybe MIT undergraduates, as Nass reports, can hide behind their laptops during class, insisting “they are able to manage all that media and still pay attention to what is important in class.” Maybe our brains are evolving at the same pace as information technology. (I wouldn’t know, since I’m driving an older model.) Nass doesn’t believe this, however; in fact, his studies indicate that the only cognitive changes showing up are that multitaskers tend to stay in that mode even when they’re not multitasking. He thinks this trend might be leading to a “dumbing down of the world.”

Well, yes, that does sound scary, but also perhaps a little... hysterical? We humans are nothing if not adaptable. Or maybe I’m just falling into that all-too-human trap, characterized by Nass as “faith in our ability to manage information just because it’s there.”

Narrowing the focus a bit, how do these findings affect us hapless millions in the workaday world, the legions tapping keyboards in cubicle farms for the good of a corporation and their own checking accounts? Can we go to sleep at night secure in the knowledge that (Nass again) “I can function in a world in which I have to multitask”?

It seems the answer is yes, at least according to Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at University of California, Irvine. During a recent Palo Alto Research Center lecture titled “Multitasking in the Workplace,” she laid out the results of her ongoing research into work-type multitasking. Her data are derived from a combination of on-site observation of people doing their jobs and empirical lab experiments. Without predicting the end of the world, or even the office, as we know it, Mark measured what we do in our cubicles and has this to say about it:

  • Task time. Your average “information worker” spends 3 minutes and 5 seconds on a task before switching to (or being interrupted by) another.
  • Device time. This worker spends an average of 2 minutes and 11 seconds before switching to a different technological device (e.g., answering e-mail, word processing, checking phone messages).
  • Switching tasks. When forced to switch from a task, 81 percent of information workers were able to return to it, although they usually had strayed away to several different tasks before this happened.
  • Resuming a task. Overcoming brain lag and concentrating once again on the original task took 23 seconds on average. This is not only measurable but also has a name: “task switch cost.”
  • Subjective response. Not all interruptions are the same, some being internal or related to the task in hand, and some being external. When positive, these interruptions were characterized by workers as “interactions.” When negative, they were “distractions.”

Mark emphasizes what she calls “working spheres,” projects to the rest of us, but she likes to qualify their nature more broadly to include interrelated events, common goals, communication with others involved in the project, necessary technological tools, and timelines. Here’s some more information: We spend an average of 10.5 minutes per working sphere before switching—and here she emphasizes a complete switch in context. If you filter out “nonsignificant” interruptions such as quickly signing off on a document, the average time is closer to 12 minutes. And we’re usually juggling about a dozen spheres at the same time.

How much do interruptions induce stress? One of Mark’s lab experiments produced, among other things, the interesting finding that people tend to speed up when interrupted, though they produce less work cumulatively on a given task. Despite this compensation, participants in the experiment clocked more measurable:

  • Stress
  • Mental workload
  • Frustration
  • Time pressure
  • Effort

So there you have it. Mark notes that our current work culture is designed to support individual rather than collaborative effort, even though we’re moving toward the latter. “The burden falls on the [information] user to integrate work that is fragmented over time and space,” she concludes. But she offers this positive suggestion: Maybe interactions, distractions, or multitasking—call them what you will—would be easier to manage or recover from if they were organized into working spheres.

Is that my phone ringing?
Work, Switch, Multitask

Media Inquiries
Media interested in interviewing ICS faculty, students or alumni should contact Matt Miller at or (949) 824-1562.