back to article Multitaskers: suckers for irrelevancy, easily distracted

A recent study implies it's not cool to brag about your skills as a multitasker. This will comes as bad news to those of us who regularly consume multiple simultaneous media streams - texting while watching television, hopping between websites and IM, or coding while listening to Jay-Z. You know who you are. Specifically, …


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  1. Alan Esworthy
    Paris Hilton

    Well, duh

    I've long reckoned that multitasking performance is similar to committee effectiveness. In the latter, effectiveness is inversely related to the square of the number of participants; in the former, performance (or effective intelligence if you will) on any single task is inversely related to the multitasking level.

    When I hire analysts and other technical people, I want them to concentrate on the task - note the singular - at hand. If I interrupt with another task, I very much like to be told that I'm interfering with productivity. Sometimes I need to do that, but we all need to see clearly the cost of doing so.

    [PH because she calls for undivided attention]

  2. Martin Carroll


    "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it."

    How about being able to do 4 things simultaneously in the same time as it takes non multis to do one thing? I regularly handle complaints via IM with 4 people at once while colleagues get through one in the same time

  3. Charles Manning

    Is it really multitasking?

    Or is it just attention deficiency?

  4. Patrick Ernst


    4 complaints via IM at one time is the same task with 4 different I/O paths. You are basically handling the same general task. Now add in facebook and twitter tasks into the mix and see how you do. BTW, perhaps the clients at the other end may not see you as so effective as you see yourself.

    Doing one thing very well is probably better than doing multi things okay or not at all. Perhaps we train ourselves to become easily distracted while fooling ourselves about our abilities to do all things at once. Just ask my wife!

  5. jake Silver badge

    Typical clueless academics ...

    "As Ophir said: "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it.""

    How about diagnosing mechanical equipment problems (including the likes of HVAC, plumbing, electrical, internal combustion engines, and wheeled vehicle suspension)? Animal training? Cooking? Hunting? Fishing? Farming? Weather forecasting?

    Get out of school & eyeball the RealWorld[tm], you idiots ... before it's too late!

  6. Anonymous Coward


    I'm surrounded right four screens and my focus

    . I'm doing a great

    so ther. double anchovies!!

  7. paul 27
    Paris Hilton

    @Alan Elsworthy

    PH because she calls for undivided attention??

    I may be wide of the mark, but, iirc, Paris was a true multi-tasker.

    Receiving a phone call in the middle of an intimate session constitues multi tasking in my mind.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    ...and women are supposed to be better at multitasking...


    *runs away*

  9. Stef 4


    That isn't multitasking. It is the same task. I and everyone else in my company does that every day, it is nothing special. Answering one of those complaints via IM, and listening to talk radio, and watching YouTube, and doodling a picture of President Bush riding a kangaroo through congress is multitasking.

  10. JK
    Thumb Up



    Ha ha, suck it, multitaskers.

  11. TheOnlyRick
    Paris Hilton

    @jake/typical clueless academics

    So you're saying that *only* multitaskers are good at all those skills/tasks?

    (Diagnosing mechanical equipment problems (including the likes of HVAC, plumbing, electrical, internal combustion engines, and wheeled vehicle suspension)? Animal training? Cooking? Hunting? Fishing? Farming? Weather forecasting?)

    I also hope that anonymous coward's bizarre post was a joke.

    (And Paris, because there are a load of different ways I would like to 'do' her...)

  12. Matt 21


    @Martin: I've been on the other end of a chat with someone dealing with three other people.... It's not fun, you keep having to repeat yourself until you want to commit and act of voilence :-)

    @Jake: Most of the things you list can be done more effectively by concentrating. So while I agree the researches probably need to get out more I don't think you've proved your point.

    Lastly, in general isn't this one of those male/female things. I've certainly heard women complain about their husbands/boyfriends inability to, for example, hold a phone conversation and watch TV while keeping an eye on the kids.

  13. Tim Croydon

    Nerd sniping

  14. Dazed and Confused

    Multitasking and IM

    The problem with most IM conversations is that they aren't sufficiently high bandwidth to keep a "concentrater" busy. So the mental process usually goes

    concentrate on the what the other guys said

    think of a responce


    day dream...

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I wanted to post a relevant comment

    Meanwhile I was distracted by something else which I forgot as well. But I'm one hell of a multitasker!

    EA. er, anon because, because, I forgot.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Damn, they might actually have a point... I definitely have noticed a drop in my general performance ever since I became a chronic multi-tasker.

    A further question is, however, who has the most fun???

  17. Bod

    "easily distracted"

    easily distracted - sounds like one of my school reports.

  18. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it."

    Absolutly agree. Those jerks doing everything at once do nothing well. Well, that's the Attention-Deficit-Disorder generation for you. Of course, it's shamelessly encouraged by management - "in these days & times you must be able to do several things at once". Yes, like the human cognitive apparatus suddenly grew additional processors in the last 20 years.

    As for those who think they actually _can_ do it -- they may want to read a few studies about how self-assessment can be totally off.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    They are basically saying that MT's pay attension to everything so they are crap at stupid random letter / number tests....

    I mT all the time but only on specific things. i have been doing my job so long i do not need to concentrate as much. I deal with a couple of supports chats, a phone call and do support emails while browsing the internet. now as long as the difficulty is fairly easy I can do this as all the information is already in my long term memory not short term. However if the task gets difficult I need to focus all my attension on it

    This does not impact my performance negatively. I do 3 times the work of any other staff member.

  20. Tommy The Turtle

    It sounds like ADD to me...

    ...and on that note:

    How many kids with ADD does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    Let's go ride our bikes...

  21. Anonymous Coward


    "I've certainly heard women complain about their husbands/boyfriends inability to, for example, hold a phone conversation and watch TV while keeping an eye on the kids."

    Yeah but doesn't the study imply that while men may not be actually watching TV while they're talking on the telephone, women are - and as a result they do a worse job of communicating?

    My limited experience suggests that because women regularly spend long times on the phone, they're not doing a good job of communicating. My guess is that they're too busy eating chocolate and thinking about make-up. <ducks>

  22. sandman

    Pointy Haired One

    I remember working for a guy who was unable to concentrate on a single task. Not only did he constantly multitask, he couldn't prioritise the tasks, so formatting a letter was, to him, as important as finishing a construction job. It was very entertaining to watch, but we had to wait until he went on holiday to get any real work done.

  23. Al fazed

    So that's the reason why

    my last year has been like shite on earth when I have had those cracked up conversations on the telephone and received important eMails with highly decorative signatures but without the attachment.

    Not sure where this is going but .....................

    my teenage kids are great at all those multi tasking tasks mentioned, however, they are totally unable to spell properly, cannot have a "normal" conversation, or turn off the [any_electrical_device] after use, oh yeah, and they are all three, of the female persuasion.

    However, my last employer [male] could take an incoming phone call by blue tooth whilst dictating the finer points of a sales invoice. He could frequently be found going up a ladder, holding a piece of your roof in one hand, a sl*ff in the other and chatting on the phone. Notice I said my "last" employer.


  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Alan Turing - Considered to be the father of modern computing. Conducted his research at Kings College, Cambridge; the National Physic Laboratory; Princeton and The University of Manchester - academic.

    Doug Engelbart - Designed the mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to GUIs at the Stanford Research Institute - academic.

    See, academics do have their uses. Perhaps we'd all do better if we took the advice of "Why Don't You?". Just saying...

  25. Steve Martins

    Completer finishers...

    People who are good at being focussed and directed in their activities are completer finishers. Multitaskers are innovators, that wide information resource (or lack of filters as its put) allows "multi-taskers" (i don't think the term is entirely appropriate because they're discussing people whos attention meanders through supposedly irrelevant subjects, rather than someone who is focussed on several tasks at once) to draw on unrelated information in problem solving - also known as lateral thinking, or thinking outside the box. I guess the researcher is a completer-finisher, and has limited him/herself to a very narrow viewpoint (those filters working overtime?) - the fact that they couldn't find what "multitaskers" are good at should probably get him sacked from the field of research!

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @paul 27

    >Receiving a phone call in the middle of an intimate session constitues multi tasking in my mind.

    I beg to differ, I've not seen the video but from that statement what I can deduce is if she answered a telephone mid-coitus then the bloke wasn't doing it right.

  27. Psmiffy


    some people say I am easily distracted, hey a squirril!

  28. breakfast

    A device on the part of our future enemy

    So the more we diffuse our attention across different media the worse we are at concentrating? And thanks to the internet we have a device for diffusing our attention almost impossibly thin.

    I suggest this is a plot on the part of our future AI overlords to create a slave race with the attention-span of gnats who are able to do little more than gibber and carry out simple instructions for them. Or perhaps provide fuel for their meat-harvesting killbots.

    Not optimistic, I admit, but we'll see who is right when the robot swarms sweep them to power and we're too busy checking twitter, facebook, five different forums and the Register to even notice.

  29. frank ly

    @Stef 4 re.@Bollox

    "..doodling a picture of President Bush riding a kangaroo through congress is multitasking..."

    Did you do that? I'd love to see it if you can post it somewhere.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Re: Arrgggggg!!!! @AC 07:49

    >I do 3 times the work of any other staff member.

    So do I, and when I wake up I do even more.

  31. Anonymous Coward

    And the lesson is ..

    .. never, ever distract someone during a porn session. You will otherwise have *no* idea what gets dirty.

    The one with the box of Kleenex, please

    Anon, because it's better with strangers :-)

  32. Angelfish

    Multitaskers, many half finished jobs

    I admit sometimes I am a multitasker, and sometimes I am a "single-tasker".

    Generally the times when I multitask are when doing repetitive "simple" jobs that require little attention or thought, or if I am waiting for something to finish. It is usually on tasks where it doesn't matter if I screw up.

    If I am doing something that needs thought or has disasterous consequences, then I don't multitask generally.

    I have had complaints about this from work colleagues who multitask all the time. I disagree with them, generally I complete things so they work whereas they have a big stack of half done things which generally don't get finished ... ever! Personally i would rather do 5 things properly than 15 things half done.

    This to me is living proof that you can't multitask all the time and do things properly.

    Listening to MP3s, surfing the net, watching TV, coding for a hobby hardly constitutes serious multi-tasking does it anyway?

    Perhaps they should study pilots who land a plane whilst reading the paper and loading tunes onto their iPod..... and see how successful that would be.

  33. Anonymous Coward

    @al fazed

    WTF is a sl*ff ?

    AC just in case I am being very, very slow.

  34. Michael Brown
    Jobs Halo

    Another good reason...

    ...why the iPhone only lets you do one thing at a time :-)

  35. The Other Steve
    Dead Vulture

    Broken bogon filter

    So some "researchers .. gathered a group of about 100 students".

    So a self selecting group of statistically insignificant size was used to perform a 'study' with no controls and no double blind protocols, thus rendering the whole thing utterly and completely meaningless.

    "The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds."

    Only the special kind of retard that you find in academia would be able to postulate that as a universally bad thing.

    And only the special type of retard you find in the reg comments section these days (where did everyone else go ?) would cheer lead for it.

    I can't juggle at all , and I know a man who can but is rubbish at it, therefore, by the type of logic displayed above, not only are there no people who can juggle properly, but even of there were it would not be a valuable skill in any context.


  36. Il Midga di Macaroni

    Well duh!

    This study (flawed and unscientific as it is) points out the folly of thinking about ADD and other labels as a mental disorder or learning difficulty. They're not - they have their advantages and disadvantages, which gives a person with ADD strengths and weaknesses. It's the same as visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners - once you know what your specialty is and can find a job that suits it, you can be many times more effective in it than someone whose brain isn't wired for it. And of course they in their job will be equally more effective than you would be.

    Long live the multitaskers, they're the ones that can answer a help desk call when it comes in and then go back to speccing up a new box without forgetting where they were. And long live the single taskers, they're the ones that can nut out weird inconsistencies in network timeouts that baffle 2nd level support.

  37. jwernerny

    Good Findings, Wrongly Applied

    Perhaps the problem isn't the mutl-tasking, it's what the multi-taskers are being asked to do. For me, listening to music while working keeps me focused on work. Without it (or with too many conversations), I can't get focused and my productivity goes way down.

    Maybe that's why I like competing in motorsports (rally, Autocross) and driving on the German autobahn so much. The amount of information to process and respond to and the speed at which it is coming is very high, and it keeps my attention very well.

    The IT angle: Perhaps the tests were like going up to a Cray, asking it to sum 40 numbers at a very low priority, and then measuring the amount of task swapping that was going on.

  38. Victor 2
    Thumb Down


    Terrible joke of an academic "research"...

    If this guy would for once get out of his little theorical box, he would know that in real life you usually can't focus on just one thing and expect everything else to work perfectly...

    What would happen to these monotaskers when they are in the middle of a crisis (be it a large problem in the job, or a broken car while having to resolve some other issue at the same time)... how can he even say he doesn't know what multitaskers are good for?... you can't solve problems if you think only one thing, you'll only get stuck there.

    His "study" only proved once again that ADD exists... now, what about comparing monotaskers against multitaskers in real world situation, like... life for example?

  39. Psmiffy

    and also

    This is a bit of a retarded study anyway. So the guys who were so focused on getting the fire made ignored the fact that they were just about to get eaten by something big and furry .. whereas the guy who could "receive input from multiple sources" may just have lived a little longer?

  40. Simpson

    I wish!, @AC

    "limited experience suggests that because women regularly spend long times on the phone, they're not doing a good job of communicating"

    You should count yourself lucky (or lonely).

    I've never met a woman who didn't want to communicate my to death.

  41. Sarah Bee (Written by Reg staff)

    Re: I wish!, @AC

    >>I've never met a woman who didn't want to communicate my to death.

    I'm happy to do my bit to redress the balance by ignoring you from hereon in.

  42. steward

    The devil is in the details

    As di Macaroni points out, the study is both flawed and unscientific. I personally have never needed to multitask clicking on red triangles instead of blue triangles. The things I need to multitask on, I do just fine with.

    This is a scientific study on a par with "Upon removal of fourth leg, grasshopper goes deaf."

  43. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I regularly listened to music while doing college/university work. That said it was usually soundtrack stuff, and actually helped me focus more than distracted me. I also used to regularly play games while watching TV as a teen.

    I have a good memory for the task at hand, verging on ridiculously good. I also have an absurdly high attention span.

    100 people isn't statistically significant. That said I don't even consider listening to music while working on something to truly be multitasking unless it demands attention.

  44. W

    Re: The Other Steve


    "...the researchers who conducted the study gathered a group of about 100 students and divided them into two groups: those who regularly multitask among media and those who don't."

    On what criteria were they split? Self selection? If so, then there's every chance that all this study suggests (but does not prove) is that lots of people who think they can multitask can't. Similarly, maybe those who can multitask don't recognise their own abilities.

    Without any kind of control group (at the very least) this is a baseless study and the publishers of it should be ashamed of themselves.

    And El Reg should be ashamed for giving them the oxygen of publicity.

  45. Anonymous Coward

    @@al fazed

    >" WTF is a sl*ff ? "

    A "sliff" is a slang name for a marijuana ciarette.

  46. Anonymous Coward

    "those of us who regularly consume multiple simultaneous media streams"

    Or "wank around wasting time on the internet when you're supposed to be working", as the more straight-talking amongst us like to call it.

  47. Anonymous Coward

    The design of scientific studies and delusions of competence.

    There are a lot of angry posts here from people claiming that it's rubbish because they multitask all the time and they are all brilliant at what they do, but it's well known that the first thing an incompetent fails to do adequately is judge their own competency. Or in other words, maybe you're all lousy at your jobs and don't even know it.

    Related to that are the complaints about bad experimental design, since they seem mostly to be inspired by wounded pride. What do you mean, "no control group"? There were a bunch of multitaskers and a bunch of non-multitaskers formed the control group. What other kind of control would you use if you wanted to study the effects of multitasking on cognitive processes? And complaining that it wasn't double-blind? What makes you think that the people administering the tests had any idea which subject was in which test group? Did you read the full paper? I'll bet not, since it's a paid download. Criticising the experimental protocol when you haven't even read the details of it is fairly blatantly clutching at straws, and your only motive for it can be vanity; you want the result to be wrong because you think you're a great multitasker. This is backwards reasoning and seriously fallacious. Finally, to those who say that these tasks don't reflect anything in the real-world: recognizing simple shapes and colours is one of the most fundamental cognitive parts of anything you actually do in the real world. If your performance at that is screwed, how can your performance at much more complex skills built on top of those elementary ones not also be screwed?

    Meanwhile, hackers have known this since forever - we use the term "context switch" to refer to the wasted time and effort overhead of swapping between tasks in relation to humans at work as well as operating systems scheduling processes.

  48. Geoff Mackenzie

    "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it."

    Only looked for five minutes, got distracted.

  49. Guilherme Eilert
    Thumb Down


    "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it."

    Well, how about... multitasking? Like, solving more than one problem or doing more than one thing at the same time? They could not, by definition, be worst at it than the people that do one thing at a time.

    Besides, it seems they did the study over people that multitask a lot, not people that multitask well. I mean, anyone can boast that they do a lot of crap at once, but the real especial people are the ones that can do more than one thing at a time while maintaining some level of excelency and focus.

  50. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Taking it one step at a time

    First is to look into the actual questions posed, gain more insight into the actual split between the two groups, and ponder what the study sponsors hope to gain from contrived results - whoops that's three.

  51. jake Silver badge

    @TheOnlyRick &@Matt 21 &@Simon Banyard

    TheOnlyRick asks: "So you're saying that *only* multitaskers are good at all those skills/tasks?"

    Yes. If you are not a multitasker, you *might* be able to play the roll at any of those tasks, but you will never be any good at it. As an example, a unitasker might be able to make himself a bacon sarnie, but can she provide an acceptable eight course meal for 16 people out of a typical home kitchen? Run the flat-top at the local dinner during the breakfast shift? Play the roll of Chef de Cuisine (or even sous-chef!) at the Hotel St. George in Harrogate during conference season?

    Matt 21 comments: "Most of the things you list can be done more effectively by concentrating. So while I agree the researches probably need to get out more I don't think you've proved your point."

    See my cooking comment, above. Likewise, there is a BIG difference between standing up to your arse in a trout stream and single-handing a commercial salmon boat.

    Simon Banyard contributes: "See, academics do have their uses."

    I never said they didn't ... I received more than my share of research money when I was at Uni. I'm just pointing out that these particular researchers seem to have approached the problem from an orthogonal direction to the reality of the real world. Wasting time twittering whilst watching MTV, updating your facebook, reading/replying on ElReg and playing online games is NOT a useful use of time, nor is it useful multitasking. This is obvious, and hardly deserving of research.

  52. jake Silver badge

    I meant to add ...

    I meant to add to the above that the only thing that this group of researchers has proved is that easily distracted people are easily distracted.

    (Mods: Sorry for the double post, one of the cats must have trodden on the keyboard when I was off helping the Vet.)

  53. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    @ AC 15:29 GMT

    Thank you my good man.

    New to me, that one.

    Used to be called a spliff.

    Getting old, I guess.

  54. Anonymous Coward


    I have to be careful, my wife is always telling me how good at Multi Tasking she is and in a fit of mischief i emailed her a link to this article.

    Secondly the study said "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it." well DUUUHHH! Multitaskers are better at Multitasking and whether Multitasking has any value is a moot point or not depending on whether my wife reads this.

    I suspect i'll be monotasking for myself for a week or so now but it may have been worth it

  55. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Test is so dumb.

    Yes I can multitask well, and yes I get distracted easily. That can be a disadvantage, but that is one of the reasons WHY I can multitask well. When something needs my attention I am aware of it immediately and can deal with it accordingly. People who can't multitask tend to ignore all other stimuli (they don't even hear you talking to them while they're doing something else). That means they are good at doing one thing and not getting distracted, good for them, but they are not good at multitasking.

    The report suggests that people who are only capable of focusing on one thing at a time are better at multitasking.

    Everything about the test is dumb and unscientific. They draw conclusions that aren't there. I have heard this stupid report multiple times on various news and radio, and every time I can't believe how stupid it sounds. It's a "1+1 = 2, therefore 3+1 = banana" argument.

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