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.


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