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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Secrets to Successful Multitasking

Reading this blog post on multitasking by Googler Chip Turner got me thinking about if multitasking is actually more effective than just stepping through a task step-by-step and if it is, how to best go about it. There's no question that for a computer parallel processing is more efficient as long as the right algorithms can be devised, but for people it isn't so clear.

Is it more effective?

Well, a study on emergency room physicians indicates that they get interrupted about 50 times in a 3 hour session while tending to 12 patients (these are all averages). Of those, about 20 caused the physicians to switch to a different task. While undoubtedly many patients have died as a result of medical malpractice, physicians are still reasonably effective at saving lives, but maybe that's because becoming an emergency room doctor has already weeded out those who aren't able to multitask effectively.

Studies done in neuroscience journals indicate that
each time a person switches back and forth between tasks, the brain goes through several time-consuming activities, including:

* a selection process for choosing a new activity,
* turning off the mental rules needed to do the first task,
* turning on the mental rules needed to do the second task,
* orienting itself to the conditions currently surrounding the new task

Research indicates that jumping back and forth between tasks can take four times longer to accomplish them - simply due to the time required for switching gears.

So it appears that multitasking is a great computational burden with various mental course corrections taking place, but it's unavoidable with both work and personal life requiring us to address so many different tasks.

So how do I effectively multitask then?

Chip Turner's post approaches multitasking from a computational perspective with state taking the place of thinking and decision-making. He describes setting up notifications that pop up when certain programming tasks have been completed, essentially pushing the information processing burden (the need to be alert and check on the status of certain tasks) onto the computer.

Other tips:

1. Take time at the beginning of the day to decide which tasks have priority and schedule their completion first. Make a checklist of tasks that you check off as you complete them. If you have a common set of tasks to do each day, just type it up and print it out every morning.

2. To reduce the mental processing burden, group related tasks together. Try to find some sort of narrative to fit the tasks in so they seem to fit together. That'll reduce the effort needed to switch gears.

3. Change the layout of your computer. You could designate the upper left corner of your desktop to be the area where priority tasks go, the upper right as slightly less urgent tasks, and so on. Or you could group tasks into categories and mentally envision a grid that separates them on your desktop.

4. Make a quick note whenever you stop one task to work on another so you can glance at it to refresh yourself when switch back. You might want to learn a shorthand to be even more efficient.

4.5. For more on optimal mental performance, read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who describes a mental state called flow where a painter, artist, or even driver is completely caught up in his or her task.


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