Is multitasking ergonomic?

Multitasking has been prevalent in modern society for many years now.  Many people feel that the more they can do at once, the more they will get done.  But research studies done on multitasking finds that this concept is unsound.  In a 2001 study done by Rubenstein, Meyer & Evans (Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching; Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance); it was found that time was required to switch tasks.  And the more complex or unfamiliar the task, the more time it took to switch.  Although the time length of the switch can be relatively minor, say one second for checking email; those seconds add up over the course of a day.  And for more complex tasks, time can really add up.  It is generally thought that 15-20 minutes is the time needed to get back into the “flow” of a complex task once interrupted.  Flow is said to be the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity (Csíkszentmihályi).  So people who are working on intense projects, generating creative ideas, or developing software code will find multitasking to be extremely detrimental to their work.  Aral, Brynjolfsson & Van Alstyne found that “productivity is greatest for small amounts of multitasking but beyond an optimum, multitasking is associated with declining project completion rates and revenue generation.” (Information, Technology and Information Worker Productivity, 2008)  So in terms of ergonomics – where ergonomics means a natural system of work, striving for efficiency, and fitting the person to the task is the goal – it is felt that multitasking is not ergonomic.  It could be argued that in fact people are surrendering to the tasks and letting the tasks control them.  So then, to be efficient and creative at work and in life; don’t let the tasks overrun your work.  Do one task at a time and do it well.  Resist the urge to procrastinate by checking email or your cell phone – turn off everything and concentrate on the task at hand.  Once you see the benefits of single focus attention, multitasking will become a distant notion of the past – for the better.


How to use your iPad ergonomically

The iPad is a wonderful device which allows you quick access to the internet anywhere along with thousands of apps to keep you entertained and informed.  But ergonomically, there are some pitfalls.  The main problem is that iPads are like laptops, but on an even smaller scale.  When you can’t separate the keyboard from the monitor, you either feel it in your neck from looking down at the screen or in your shoulder, elbows, wrists, and hands from raising your arms to type and mouse.  But as long as you use your iPad with care, you can reduce the risk of injury.  Here are some tips to help you enjoy your iPad experience with greater comfort:

  1. Placement – Ideally you would not grip your iPad with one hand while using it with your other.  The ergonomic risk factors of pinch grip force and awkward posture of your hand and wrist put you at an increased risk for injury.  You would also not want to put the iPad on your lap or even flat on a table.  This increases neck flexion which could in turn cause neck and shoulder problems and possibly headaches.  There are some good devices on the market that do alleviate some ergonomic risk factors.  One holds your iPad at the height and tilt you want it while clamped to a table or desk (iWare).  Others are tilt adjustable stands that sit on a table or desk for a cheaper option (Griffin A-Frame).  Or there are hand attachments for the back of the iPad that eliminate the pinch grip requirements (Hand-e-Holder).
  2. Reduce frequency of use – The iPad is not a device that you would want to use for hours.  The neck flexion and raised arms put you at a greater risk of injury than a desktop computer.  If you want to spend hours, you should be at a properly designed ergonomic workstation with a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and keyboard and mouse tray.  As a rule of thumb, try not to use the iPad any longer than 20 minutes without a break of at least 5 minutes or longer.
  3. Mix it up – Try not to use one finger or your thumbs continuously.  Use a mixture of hand positions and swipes to reduce repetitive motion.
  4. Task dependent – If you are using your iPad to read, place it higher so that your neck flexion is reduced.  If you are using many applications with lots of swiping and scrolling, place your iPad at a lower level to reduce awkward postures in hands and wrists.
  5. Change hands – Try alternating your hands, e.g. use your left hand to swipe and scroll, and your right hand to hold (don’t give up on this too easily– you will get better with practice!)
  6. Use both hands – Don’t hold and swipe/scroll with one hand.  This combines a myriad of ergonomic risk factors increasing the risk of injury considerably.
  7. Swipe, scroll or click? – Clicking is the best, followed by swiping, and scrolling last.  Scrolling has more awkward postures and more force is required.

The proper postures and movements, combined with regular rest breaks and non-continuous use, will allow you to have a great iPad experience with minimal repercussions from injury.