Multitasking Is a Good Thing

Back in high school, my mother came home to me doing homework on the couch, with the radio blaring, and the television on (I was watching the soap Santa Barbara. Don't judge me). She made a move to turn off the TV, to which I quickly complained. "Hey, I was watching that!" and told her I was in the middle of watching a very important scene (It was a tense scene where Kelly Capwell, played by Robin Wright Penn, had been kidnapped). image

"Well, turn off the radio then."

"No, I am listening to that, as well. It's good background noise."

"But you'll never retain what you're reading." But as a fairly good student who had already skipped 2 grades, her data did not back up that theory, either. And so the TV and the radio remained on, and I went back to work on my report (which was a sociology paper on family interactions — how is that for retention?).

I was reminded of this interaction while reading Clive Thompson's recent Wired article Winnowing Windows in which he talks about the forthcoming Windows 8 metro theme (or, I should say, the Prince theme, i.e. the theme formerly known as Metro) and its beautiful simplicity – and the initial feedback from early trials where people are complaining that it actually makes multitasking more difficult. He explains "the cognitive perils of having lots of open windows have been somewhat overblown. It’s not always bad for us—and sometimes it can be very good."

In regards to a 2009 study on multitasking, he says

"It found that heavy multitaskers had trouble screening out irrelevant information—they were distracted more easily because they were always paying partial attention to everything. But as the study’s coauthor Eyal Ophir points out, that mental orientation can be a good thing in the real world. At work—unlike in a lab experiment—nobody knows objectively which incoming messages are irrelevant. You’ve got to pay a bit of attention to everything or you could miss a critical notice from your boss or a coworker.

We are just scratching the surface in what we understand about cognitive patterns and the ability of some people to filter more inputs than others. I always chalked up my own ability to filter out sound, or to divide my active listening between separate inputs as the result of being the second of 10 children. I grew up in a noisy household, so my brain wired itself this way. But recent studies have got me thinking differently about it (and that I'm not as unique as I thought), showing that certain people ARE more productive with more screens, more windows open, more interruptions to their day. It may not be true in all aspects of their lives (I still enjoy reading science fiction in a quiet house), but when it comes to work environments, more stimulation may be a good thing.

I sit in an office a couple states away from my nearest co-workers. My most productive days are when I am in almost constant contact with them — not when I am left alone. Personally, the reminders, the contact, the conversations spark my imagination, keep me mindful of time and tasks at hand. Is that weird? Anyone else feel the same way?

And I am a twin-screen information worker – spreading my tasks and activities between laptop and a giant monitor to my left….but I envy those with three screens (I am close to biting that bullet). However, this need for high access to my applications has affected my adoption at some new technologies, such as mobile and tablet devices. I regularly complain at the inefficiencies of my iPad and all of the additional clicks/swipes I have to do to move between applications. I want access to my information quickly. It makes perfect sense that I have 6 applications open on my screen at any given time — it helps me to be efficient and effective. As Thompson put's it:

"Our problems come not merely from juggling tons of windows but from juggling ones that compete cognitively with one another. Your Facebook feed and dinging Foursquare check-in alerts from friends almost certainly rip your mind away from work. But the blizzard of messaging from office mates and the deluge of information from 25 browser tabs may do the opposite." Read his article.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of, a blockchain-based video technology company.