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.


  1. Karen

    I’m reading a great book called Why We Make Mistakes by Hallinan that talks a lot about multi-tasking (and how we’re not nearly as good at is as we think we are). It’s sadly just a fact of life today. When I found myself brushing my teeth AND putting folded clothes away, I thought: “I can’t even brush my teeth without trying to fit in another task!”

    Thanks for the great blog posts Mike; I really enjoy reading them!

  2. Dirck Schou

    As a former door gunner, mechanized recon platoon leader, Huey, Cobra, and LOH (C-500) pilot in Vietnam (three tours), I can recall countless times when I was talking/listening on multiple radio channels (my fellow craft members, fellow unit members (helicopters or APC 113’s), my battalion/squadron commander, the commander of the unit I was supporting, and often Air Force jets in support – all while flying the helicopter, or commanding my platoon and, on occasion, firing guns or rockets all the while. I found such experiences both necessary and exhilirating. Did I make mistakes? Perhaps. I am not aware of any, recalling some 40 years later. The one perhaps significant difference is that I wasn’t reading anything: radar, email or text. I was only listening, talking, and reacting. Maybe it is different when one is both listening, talking and reading. Maybe reading is the disruptive activity! Today, it seems impossible to email, read email, listen, and talk sincerely. It drives me mad when someone checks their iphone while I am talking. I cannot do it and feel committed to the person with whom I am trying to communicate.

    • Mike Foster

      Thank you for your input, Dirck! And thank you for your service. I wonder too if reading is the “interrupter” that otherwise interferes with listening and talking. I find it amazing you were able to accomplish all you did in the service! I wonder too if, when we are in a “life or death” situation, maybe our brains can accomplish more during that time?

  3. Dirck Schou

    Good point, Mike….and being young!

    • Mike Foster

      Yes… As life goes on, I find my wisdom increasing and my youth getting further away.

      I’m curious if someone will post that one of the reasons I cannot multitask is because I do not believe I can multi-task. I am a big proponent of avoiding limiting beliefs – but I’m mostly convinced the multi-tasking issue is not caused my own limiting beliefs.

      Multitasking sounds like an excellent ability, if it is possible to possess. I agree with you though – at least in normal day to day business and social settings, there is a lot of value in just stopping all distractions and focusing on one conversation, or task, at a time.

      Sometimes it is more fun to focus on one task at a time – like while experiencing an “escape from reality” such as watching a movie or reading a good book. Perhaps one of the biggest desires to want to multitask, in addition to being in a life threatening situation, may be because we feel bored and want to have some excitement. If that is the case, I for sure want to be a good listener so the person I’m talking with will know I am present and value their conversation. If I don’t value the conversation, I’ll owe it to both of us to politely excuse myself if possible.

      Being a new parent now for 3 years, I have noticed that some parents often seem so overwhelmed with everything “to do” that they feel the need to multi-task around the kids. Frankly, my wife and I sometimes multitask too during our parenting time – and my lovely wife spends a ton more time with the kids than me while I’m off consulting and speaking. I wonder how much parental “multi-tasking” interferes with the development of children – and what example it sets for them to emulate as adults themselves some day. I know that recently I’m spending a lot more time being present with my kids.

      Speaking of being older and gaining wisdom – isn’t it wonderful that grandparents seem to avoid multi-tasking when with their grandchildren? It is almost like nothing else exists in the grandparent’s world except their grandchild when the two are together.

      I think I’d better stick to IT – an area I’m qualified to talk about – and I so enjoy the feedback of others. Thank you and please keep sharing your ideas!

  4. Dianna Graves

    Thanks for the post – I found it while Googling multi-tasking for my graduate class. I thought I would start on the open web before heading into journals.

    I am currently taking an on-line technology/open education class, and last night we had a connecting session through Elluminate.

    While listening to the presenter, and following the chat box and the twitter feed, I realized that I was not paying as much attention to the presenter as I needed to, and was lost for a bit on what she was saying.

    In reflection, it made me question the way technology is changing our ability (or desire) to focus on one thing at a time.
    And so, am researching if anyone has formulated best practices. And to learn how other people feel about forced multi-tasking.

    I also appreciates Dirck’s commenting about reading … and will add it to my research criteria.

    • Mike Foster

      Thank you Dianna! If you want to, please pass along what you learn in your research by posting it here. I appreciate you! -Mike


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *