Saturday, November 9, 2013

Multi-tasking is a lie

Multi-tasking is a lie. At least in case of humans, it is. We have been fooled into believing that we can multitask and we should be doing so. Big advertisements and banners advocate this aloud. 1.5 Ghz Dual core, 4GB RAM, blah, blah and blah.

The false promise

Companies invest heavily in the idea of multi-tasking so that they could sell whatever they want and customers fall into vicious cycle of the need to buy more luxurious cars, secure devices, faster smartphones and what not – even if they don’t need it!

But who really even cares! They sell so that they could benefit and we buy because we can afford. That’s it. Instead of worrying about if we would really use the product, we measure whether buying that is within our financial reach or not. Usability of products has been replaced by affordability and one’s social status. And buying habits are now driven by the parameters to fit into the society.

Well, that’s how business and marketing is done in this world. And we will continue to consume in the same way until we pause and reflect.

Back to multi-tasking

If you are wondering how multi-tasking an illusion in case of humans is, you have to understand what multi-tasking really is and how it differs.

Simply put, it is the ability to execute more than one task at the same time. A/c to Wikipedia, “In computing, multitasking is a method where multiple tasks (known as processes) are performed during the same period of time, i.e. simultaneously.”

The system quickly switches between each computing task to give the impression the different applications are executing multiple actions simultaneously. [source]

The computer can have multiple CPU or cores to handle a number of tasks at a time. Therefore, computers have multi processors capable of doing many jobs at one time. But, note that even the computer processes one thing at a time by switching over from one task to another over a period of time to complete the requests made by the users.

Multitasking does scheduling of tasks as to which task will be the one running at any given time, and when another waiting task gets a turn and this is achieved by using a concept of threading.

Say you are working in MS Word, doing web browsing and listening to music, all that at the same time while eating mouth-watering Chocolate Cupcake. The CPU handles these processes in time slots with each application accessing a separate processor core simultaneously.

So, if two tasks are handled at the same moment, then it is by two different cores or processors. In case of single core/processor only one task runs at any point in time and the CPU is actively executing instructions for that task, having done the scheduling of a number of tasks to be performed after another. So in one second it is executing an MS Word instruction and in the next, it executes the processes to handle web browser instructions. Therefore, in real sense we are actually doing only one task at a time (handled by multi-processors).

Multi-tasking in humans

However, multi-tasking in humans is different from that of computers. Instead of an impression of doing multiple jobs at the same time, we, humans can only fast switch between jobs with our attention. We don’t have multi processors to handle a number of processes having access to each different processor to execute different processes.

Let me clear this with an example. Suppose you are reading something, listening to music, and checking your facebook notification on your phone all at the same time. Another common example that we all usually do can be taking phone calls while typing an email (or doing something else) or driving and listening to music or washing dishes and talking.

We think we are multi-tasking. But, if we really think over it for a second we are not actually multitasking. We are only doing one task at a moment (uni-tasking). To clear this out, let’s take the above mentioned situation. When you are reading a book for, say, 1 minute, all your focus is on the text; not on anything else. And during that time music also kept playing in your earphones but your focus was only on the text of the book, not on the music. When you listened to music, you aren’t reading (focusing) on the text anymore. That’s switching happening there, not processing (doing) two tasks at the same time. It’s a very minute and subtle process that we barely notice. Happens in microseconds.

And didn’t you ever notice when you were talking on the phone while doing something else at the same time that you only listened to what the other person was saying in chunks – not the whole conversation? That’s because your mind was processing something else at moments. Your attention was sought by that other thing you were doing. And whenever you switched your attention back to the voice on the phone line you processed what the other person was saying.


Needless to say, our mind can only do (process) one thing at a time. Think of it as working in time slots. In human context, there is no such thing as multitasking at a given moment - it can only be realized for a span of time. So, you might say we multi-tasked for a period of time but in real sense we focused only on one thing given at one time.

At last, multitasking in humans can result in time wasted due to human context switching causing more errors due to insufficient attention. So…

Apparently, we are practicing distraction in multitasking. We switch back and forth between things with our attention. And the more we multi task the less efficient we will be.