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Untangling Multi-tasking: The Importance of Being Interruptible

by Craig Roth  |  July 18, 2011  |  Comments Off on Untangling Multi-tasking: The Importance of Being Interruptible

Multi-tasking is a popular information overload/attention management sub-topic (rathole?).  I think not enough has been written on what can be done from an information systems point of view to improve the ability of information workers to multi-task and would like to share a few thoughts in that area.  There are processes that organizations and individuals can adopt to improve multi-tasking, and functionality that applications can add to make it easier as well.

What has been written on in to popular audiences (as opposed to scientific studies and surveys, of which there are many) combines one or more of these topics : how “we” (the kind of people who are reading the article) multi-task too much, are less effective when doing it, are addicted to it, cause stress for ourselves by overestimating our ability to do it, kids aren’t as good at it as they think, it’s dangerous while driving, and how to slow down and set up your day so you do less of it. 

I’ve read several articles on each of these topics, a few books, and a few academic papers, and it seems that the term “multi-tasking” is usually used instead of the more accurate term “task switching”.  If you rotate your attention around to many sensory inputs quickly enough, it appears like multi-tasking.  Same with single core processors in computers.

That difference is not academic or wordplay.  The difference is that with true multi-tasking, one would not need to hold what they are doing in separate silos of short term (working) memory and there would be no gaps when something could go unnoticed. 

I think people have a built in level of task switching they can do and that doesn’t change much. What people can learn, like a good project manager, is how to better divide up tasks and manage multiple tasks at once (what I call placeholding). To the extent youngsters have learned task slicing/management skills they are better at it. And technology sometimes helps by building in time slicing and placeholding, such as the popularity of short-term game apps (for playing in line at the grocery store) over full scale games that require constant attention.

Much has been made of the danger of workplace interruptions and many have recommended approaches to decrease unnecessary interruptions (although I’m a Conscientious Objector in the War on Interruptions).  Sure, there is some degree of interruptions that can be eliminated without much loss all around, but there will always be good and bad interruptions in any environment.  So what is also important is figuring out how to be more interruptible.

Anticipating interruptions and adopting work habits that make recovering from them less difficult is one of the expectations of information age workers.  Some people think nothing of working for hours without hitting save, while for me alt-f-s is a nervous twitch.  When reviewing long documents I now add “[bookmark]” or use the bookmarking feature whenever I step away for a break or get a call in case I don’t get back to it as soon as anticipated.  “Virtual desktops” do placeholding for an entire desktop (see a sample here, although it’s not an endorsement – I just Googled it).

One day, if we’re lucky, our productivity apps will help us by remembering where the cursor was, what was highlighted, and which ribbon bar menu tab was open when we last saved a document and shut down the computer before the weekend.

Category: attention-management  information-work  

Craig Roth
Research VP, Tech and Service Providers
7 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends...Read Full Bio




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