• Multitasking

    Almost everyone multitasks, even those who believe studies that it is inefficient. Jacob Goldstein at Planet Money, blogs about a new one that reinforces the research:

    That’s the finding in a new study of 21 judges in Milan who handled thousands of cases filed over the course of five years. The judges all had the roughly same workload assigned to them, and they all dealt with similar cases relating to labor disputes.

    They find that …

    judges who keep fewer trials active and wait to close the open ones before starting new ones, dispose more rapidly of a larger number of cases per unit of time. In this way, their backlog remains low even though they receive the same workload as other judges who juggle more trials at any given time.

    So, are all those multitaskers out there wrong in thinking they’re being more efficient? No!

    I agree with Tyler Cowen on this one. It matters a great deal when and why one switches between tasks, as well as the nature of the tasks themselves. If you’re in a boring meeting for which your presence is required but the content of which is irrelevant to you, are you being inefficient for checking e-mail on your phone? Not at all! Likewise, if you’re doing data analysis and you write a blog post as your code is crunching the data, are you lowering your productivity? No! (Oh, wait, …) Each of these is an example in which task switching is optimal because one task does not require your attention for a long time. But only you know this. A researcher would likely not.

    Contrast that with research that throws multiple tasks at people (like, say, remembering numbers and solving a puzzle). They show that performance on all threaded tasks suffers. But those are cases in which the research subjects have not selected the tasks or the timing of switching and are not able to take advantage of the relative productivity value of attention to one over the other.

    Not all multitasking is the same. It matters when you switch tasks and why you switch tasks, something that is given very little attention in discussions of this subject.

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    • There are clearly situations in which multi-tasking is entirely appropriate (watching basball and doing the dishes) and entirely inappropriate (cardiac surgery and tango). A more interesting question might be whether individuals are skilled at distinguishing between the two situations. We know that many people over-estimate their skills on certain tasks. My intuition is that where an individual misjudges their own ability they will also tend to over-state their ability to multitask. Driving while texting might be an example of this relationship.