Do you believe in human multitasking?

by | Jun/16/2010

Can you, or your workers, really be productive doing more than one task at the same time? Checking e-mail while talking on the phone for instance?

Between two back-to-back engagements in the East earlier this year, the best transportation option was to charter a private flight since other transportation options were more costly in both time and money. I booked the charter under the stipulation that the pilot allow me to sit in the copilot seat rather than “in the back” as long as I promised not to”push any buttons.” The charter service agreed, and it was 2 hours of the beautiful scenery and enlightening conversation!

The weather was beautiful and I was able to increase my knowledge of flying, navigating, aviation radio communications, and the procedures pilots use every day. My experienced and highly capable pilot spoke of how he flew Apache helicopters in the service and we discussed human multitasking—which is important when piloting an Apache. I learned later that a pilot in the book Apache by Ed Macy reports his cockpit video even showed the pilot’s two eyeballs looking in two different directions regularly during times that required multitasking!  I am unsure if the Generation Y employees have the same level of intensive training as Apache helicopter pilots.

Even my pilot, whom I hold in the highest esteem and feel enormous respect for his rotor and fixed wing piloting abilities, transmitted incorrect information through an air traffic control hand-off during our flight. I noticed it as he was transmitting, and the air traffic controller did too because they immediately asked for clarification. The point is, no matter how good we are, we are all humans. Adding multitasking requirements increases the chances for errors.

We live in a day of social media, text messages, e-mail, and constant information being “fed” to us at sometimes an alarming rate. I would find it difficult to use the Internet and e-mail at all without good spam and web content filters to eliminate the data I’m for sure not interested in anyway.

Scientific studies in controlled environment show humans who multitask suffer a precipitous drop in productivity with an associated increase in errors.  Why would we do this to our employees, especially if they are paid by the hour?

Scientists discovered that, rather than multitasking, the brain must perform rapid task-switching. On top of that, the brain must now also monitor to see which task needs attention in the next moment.  This leads to each important task only receiving the partial attention of the human.

On top of that, do you enjoy talking to someone who is not making eye contact and they type furiously while you speak? Most employers want their workers to provide full attention to work-related tasks while on the clock.

Can you or anyone you know effectively do more than one thing at the same time? Please post your comments on the blog.