Why multitasking isn’t a feature

I’m working on a report while keeping an eye on my Twitter stream. I send out a few messages while having dinner with my girlfriend. I’m reading an article on my phone while queuing at Starbucks. I’m watching my favorite sports team on TV while simultaneously hanging out on Facebook using my iPad.

Sounds familiar? Thanks to modern technology, we’ve all become avid “multitaskers.” We hop from one activity to the other and back again. Perhaps not surprisingly, Apple touts this as a feature of their new OS, and has actually been doing so for a while:

2016: Siri on Mac is all about multitasking

Siri on macOS

macOS multitasking features

2015: iOS 9 includes Split View multitasking

Apple announces split screen

2010: Steve Jobs announces Multitasking on iOS

Steve Jobs announces multitasking

From a marketing perspective, Apple’s choice to tout Multitasking as a main feature is understandable: we all do it, and the more we do it, the better multitaskers we think we are. Who doesn’t want a device and software that can make us even better at that?

Well, me for one, and not because I’m an Apple-hater (on the contrary, I use mainly Apple devices).

As with climate change, the opinion on Main Street lags behind on what has already been pretty well settled on University Street. For well over a decade now, scientific research is crystal-clear: the human brain cannot multitask.

Our brains can’t handle two complex tasks at once, and at best, what we end up doing is constantly switching our attention between different activities. This switching costs us dearly: it takes more energy, we are slower, we make more mistakes, we can’t really think. Multitasking isn’t only impossible, it hurts our productivity, the very thing we think we’re improving.

Seeing is believing

Don’t believe me? Try this simple test. It takes less than two minutes:

  1. Take a lined piece of paper, a pen, and a stopwatch.
  2. Start the timer and write on line one: M U L T I T A S K I N G, then on line two: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
  3. Stop the timer and write down the time it took you.
  4. Now start the timer again and write exactly the same on lines three and four, except now after each character you move to the other line, then back again (so you first write on line three “M”, on line four “1”, on line three “U”, on line four “2”, line three L”, line four “3”, etc.).
  5. Stop the timer and write down the time it took you.
  6. Note the difference.

If you’re like the vast majority of people, you were slower the second time through. It also felt more difficult to complete the task and you may have even made some mistakes. I’ve done this test with groups ranging from busy executives to high school students and the message always clicks immediately: this is what we’re all doing the entire day, with much more complicated tasks than writing down a bunch of letters and digits.

Back to Mac

While this fact has yet to make its way down Main Street, it’s hard to believe nobody on Infinity Loop in Cupertino (Apple’s HQ) is aware of the research on multitasking. It might be a great marketing move to appeal to the world’s “multitaskers,” but wouldn’t it be much better if Apple built technologies that truly helped us perform better?

Perhaps future versions of MacOS or iOS will include revolutionary new Singletasking features. Until then, you’ll have to rely on self discipline to keep yourself at peak productivity. (Though Saent can certainly help! 🙂 ).

9 Comments Why multitasking isn’t a feature

  1. Trina D.

    Brilliant! I have stopped using the word multi-tasking in a positive way. I have also found that focusing on one task intently for a short time allows me to accomplish so much more, so long as I plan the multiple tasks first. Saent helped me get this in action.

  2. Bas Sotthewes

    Genius, Tim. How a simple test can face you with the issues the brain is dealing, without our consciousness being aware of it. I was already bringing down the use of mobile equipment and this simple test supports me to keep following this track.

    1. Tim Metz

      Great to hear Bas! And Saent will have something coming in 2017 for those mobile distractions, so stay tuned 🙂

  3. thomas

    Great example,
    I also tried it writing multitasking and counting from 1-12 at the same time (8sec) vs one after the other (6sec), the exact same difference from the exercise above (20 vs 15). Following this example, multitasking takes up 1/3 more time & a messy mind 😉. Based on my scores. Or put differently: Single tasking will be 1/4 faster & keeps the mind fresher 👍 Back to work now 😊

  4. Mario Galevski

    Sorry to be a party-pooper, but I think, at the basic level, we’re mixing up multi-tasking as a human activity and multi-tasking as a computer activity. The first one is a no-no, the second one can be desirable.

    The computer multi-tasking means the _computer_ can do more than one thing at a time (e.g. update its operating system in the background while running Word in the foreground). Or you can have some boring download happening behind the scenes, while you read these posts :^)

    The fact that Apple, in this case, has gone the distance to muddle up the differences between the two is a pure marketing ploy. Let me stop at that.



    1. Josh Catone

      I see what you’re saying, but I think the point is that many app developers (not just Apple) are actually promoting the no-no kind of “human multitasking” as a feature. See above the shots of iOS split view (something Android also has) or the way MacOS picture-in-picture is promoted. It’s about the user doing two tasks at once — not about the computer running a process in the background while you do something else. But definitely agree with what you’re saying — computers can absolutely multitask, humans can’t. 😉


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