Multitasking Myth

I’ve been noticing a lot of praise and demand for mutlitaskers: “We are looking for a talented individual who is [insert a laundry list of qualifications here] and is also a great multitasker!” or “Women are naturally better at multitasking.” or “Not only is he gifted, but he is able to work on all these projects simultaneously. If only we had a dozen more just like him!” (—probably just to get anything done!)

The interesting aspect of this increased demand for multitasking is the rise of ADHD diagnosis. So I thought it would be an interesting exercise to pin down what exactly is being praised and diagnosed.

A Curious Case of ADHD

Let’s start with formal diagnostic criteria for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). What are the symptoms of ADHD? Below is a list of attributes that is adapted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th ed. (DSM-IV). When you read this list the first time, imagine an eight year old boy trapped in an elementary classroom. On the second reading, consider an 80-year-old woman in a nursing home. On the third, visualize a soldier just back from Afghanistan. And finally, when you read the list for the fourth time, think of a popular image of a technology start-up CEO. Try to visualize how these sets of symptoms present themselves in a particular instance, for a particular individual.

Six of more of the following have to be true:

  • Often fails to give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes.
  • Often had difficulty sustaining attention for the duration of the activity.
  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.
  • Often does not follow through on instructions and fails to finish activities that require sustained mental effort (not due to oppositional behavior or failure to understand instructions).
  • Often has difficulties organizing.
  • Often avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in activities that require sustained mental effort.
  • Often loses things necessary for tasks or activities.
  • Is often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.
  • Is often forgetful in daily activities.

If an individual is judged to possess 6 or more of the above characteristics such that they have been consistently present for over half a year and seem to impair the quality of life of that individual, we can consider Attention Deficit Disorder as a probably cause.

We can go a bit farther and diagnose Hyperactivity and Impulsivity by looking at the list below. And individual needs to exhibit six or more traits that adversely affect the quality of life.


  • Often fidgets and squirms.
  • Often leaves the seat in situations in which remaining seated is expected.
  • Often runs about or climbs excessively in situations in which it is inappropriate. Feels restlessness.
  • Often has difficulty engaging in leisure activities quietly.
  • If often “on the go” or acts as if “driven by a motor”.
  • Often talks excessively.


  • Often blurts out answers before questions have been completed.
  • Often has difficulty waiting turn.
  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others.
  • Some hyperactive-impulsive or inattention symptoms that caused impairment were present before the age of seven years.
  • Some impairment from the symptoms is present in two or more settings.
  • There must be clear evidence of clinically significant impairment in social, academic or occupational functioning.

It’s interesting to note how some of these symptoms would be frowned upon in a classroom, but admired or considered a symptom of power in the boardroom. But it is also easy to see that sleep deprivation can cause most of the symptoms described above.

  • A kid is not getting enough sleep due to allergies—breathing problems can cause sleep disturbance.
  • A senior is having problems sleeping due to an adverse reaction to a medication.
  • An over-worked employee has trouble falling a sleep due to inability to stop thinking about work.
  • An over-weight person with sleep apnea wakes up hundred of times during the night.
  • A parent stays up tending to a sick child (or just taking care of a baby).
  • A soldier back from active duty has trouble sleeping.
  • A young doctor is putting in 100 hour weeks at the hospital.
  • A teenage plays video games all night.

Pain, worry, too much work, drugs (legal or illegal), health problems (diagnosed or undiagnosed), stress, obsessive and addictive behaviors, uncomfortable sleeping accommodations, exercise (too much or too little or at a wrong time), food (too much or too little or at a wrong time)—the list can go on and on—all can cause enough sleep disturbance to cause an individual to have serious attention problems that cause life-disruption. Some of the causes of sleep depravation are internal (health) and some is external (motel sign flashing “open” through the bedroom window).

So can we make a supposition that modern external conditions are partly responsible for the rise in ADHD? When work couldn’t possibly be done due to lack of light (or access to information), people tended to get more sleep—other than sex, there wasn’t much else to do in the dark.

But what about that i-CEO? Is he just ignoring us or does he have problems with his attention?

“When the Google founders did attend a meeting about DotOrg, they spent most of their time fiddling with their BlackBerrys. At one meeting, former DotOrg executives said, they were stunned when Mr. Brin dropped to the floor and started doing push-ups.”—NYTimes Article “Google Finds It Hard to Reinvent Philanthropy.”

And just because a kid is not good at classroom time, can we rule out success as an i-CEO later in life? To delve a bit deeper, lets examine what these symptoms of ADHD really mean.

Attention Controls

“He’s a daydreamer.”
“She never pays attention to the teacher.”
“She’s impulsive.”
“He’s got a motor turned on high.”

These are common utterances from teachers and parents of kids with attention control problems. But there’s more to attention than failure to sit still for an hour or speaking out of turn. Attention controls govern our behavior. They are responsible for what we notice, how we relate new experiences to our past, how much energy we have to do a task, and even our sleep patterns.

There are three categories of attention controls: mental energy controls, input controls, and output controls.

Mental energy controls describe the differences between various people’s ability to focus intensively on a task for a period of time. Some individuals need a lot of little breaks while they perform cognitively difficult tasks, some don’t. Some people sleep well at night and some don’t. Everyone is different. But could all those with sleep problems simply be experiencing break down of their mental energy attention controls? It’s a possibility. The rise of 24-hour culture and increase in ADHD diagnosis seem to go hand-in-hand.

Intake controls describe the individual differences at acquiring new information. For example, some students are seemingly born knowing how to study, others have to learn how. Some individuals understand what’s important and can focus on just the right ideas for just the right amount of time. Others have more difficulties finding the informational cues. Some people get enormous gratification out of getting every problem right, others don’t find much pleasure from the effort.

Output controls describe the differences in personal work product. The same mental effort can result in a prolific output or a scant dribbling of work. Some individuals talk of working but produce very little. Just spending a lot of time on a task is not enough to be productive.

The most important aspect of intake and output controls is that they control what the individual focuses on at each point in time, one thing at a time! We have a very limited cognitive capacity, and control over attention controls is what allows us to make a choice (hopefully, a wise choice) of what bit of data (coming from our thoughts or from the world at large) we should focus on. We focus on what’s important (or what we think is important).

Mental energy, intake and output controls can be examined farther and specified with even finer categories of attention controls. For those interested, please read my book, “ Cognitive Tools for Product Designers“, which contains a pretty good description of how attention controls work and how to recognize failures.

With the above examples and definitions, we can now look into multitasking as a cultural phenomenon.

The Culture of Multitasking

So what does it mean when we use the word multitasking? Given our new vocabulary, we can easily see that multitasking has to do with both Intake Attention Controls and Output Attention Controls. A Multitasker, by definition, is someone who is able to pay attention to several things at once (intake information) and to work (create output) on multiple projects at the same time.

But we now know (from tons of empirical research) that we can pay attention only serially, not in parallel (think circuit board here). So what do multitaskers really do? It seems that they are continuously shifting their attention from one thing to another fast. But each time there is a shift, it takes time to analyze and remember exactly where we left the task off and what we should do next. So each shift of attention has a high cognitive cost, and thus takes time. The cost in productivity in maintaining the “illusion” of multitasking is huge. The more projects are done at the same time, the higher the loss!

Multitasking costs money!

But somehow, as a population with an increasingly high proportion of individuals with ADHD, we came up with an opposite analysis…

Multitasking p-Prim

So here we see the rise of a new cultural p-prim: “we can do several things at the same time, and we value those who seemingly do so well.”

As a culture, Americans value extraverted people. We value them so much, that when we ask individuals to take a personality profile, they feel pressure to answer in a certain way that make them look more extraverted. The result is a population with 75% extraverts!

If we value multitasking, then we will produce the same cultural shift, raising a generation of multitaksers.

Multitaskers Join the Military

On January 16 (2011), New York Times came out with an article: “In New Military, Data Overload Can Be Deadly.” During an investigation of failure of a Predator drone operator, the military came to the conclusion that their people were suffering from the “information overload.” In essence, these operators were participating in multiple conversations via instant-messaging and radio, they were reading intelligence analysis, they were monitoring troops on the ground, and they were expected to make life-and-death decision based on this thick stream of incoming data. For these men and women multitasking was an integral part of their job! And it’s a job with consequences.

To succeed, these soldiers have to divide their attention into finer and finer chunks—like beads on a string, taking in one thing at a time with an increasingly smaller size beads. But I have a feeling that this is not the mental image that is being used there. I think they see this divided attention as a rope made out of finer and finer strings—each string monitors a particular set of input or makes decisions on whether to fire the drone weapon or pass. The difference in mental models of attention results in a radically different approach to training and manning the Predator drones.

Like the broader American culture, the military bought into the multitasking p-prim. Instead of looking for way to reduce the data stream to a more cognitively manageable level, the military is looking for ways to teach multitasking.

But perhaps they should be looking into technology that can help soldiers focus on just the right bead at just the right moment.

  4 comments for “Multitasking Myth

  1. tj_
    February 8, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    As usual, interesting stuff.

    Notice that there is another phenomenon being masked by your analysis and by the statistical studies of multi-tasking. That is why the p-prim exists in the first place. There are some people whose brains are so quick that not multi-tasking leads to boredom and to failure at all tasks. These are the people who are pointed to as evidence that the p-prim is correct. Unfortunately they are a tiny minority. As all people have individually defined optimal levels of arousal, these people actually thrive on the switching. The most adept can additionally make connections between bits and pieces in their various attention streams and come up with novel solutions. (They too can be overwhelmed by multi-tasking, but at a much higher level of functioning than average.)

    The predator drone problem makes a compelling but somewhat misleading example. Your conclusion that the datastream needs better management is sound, but the rope metaphors further mask the issues.

    The problem is not the divided attention per se but the dividing of attention of people whose pattern recognition skills are not up to the task. They are presented with data, not information. The task at which they are most likely to fail is the task of being able to discriminate which bits of data are actually differences that make a difference — real information. And therefore your focus on “the right bead” does make sense, but it falls short by failing to map to the pattern making phenomenon.

    As with all important human issues, there are lots of possible metaphors, so for the drone case I propose a visual metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle where each individual piece being presented to attention may or may not help complete the image. Under life and death time pressure, there will be a tendency to fill in missing sections with preconceived parts that fit with the operators recent experience.

    This special case becomes even more difficult when we recognize that the agents for each channel of data is stridently demanding attention, not knowing whether their particular bit will help complete the puzzle but at the same time knowing that if their bit might have been helpful but didn’t get communicated that the channel carrying it will be in deep trouble. This is classic fodder for military movies.

    As a teacher, I find it very difficult to help students get better at “asking questions” much less at “asking the right questions.” The person who develops these skills gets better at selecting the right bits to form patterns from the competing data streams. I am heartened to know that you are training people to do this with product design.

    As with most p-prims, the examples of people who can do amazing multi-tasking feats (jugglers) give credence to the p-prim. That combines with changes in technology that make multi-tasking a required activity for everyone. Finally, the not so adept person, attempts the multi-tasking while telling themselves that they are good at it. The difference is a little bit like the extreme snowboard rider or surfer who has trained and trained to master the nuances of body-board-world interactions compared to a weekend boarder who has gotten “pretty good.” The military doesn’t have the luxury of years and years of training and selecting out only the best for these jobs, so they better listen to you and get the design right to match the task to the abilities of the people they do have.

    TJ Olney

  2. February 10, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Interesting response! But I want to point out that cognitive processing speed has to do with expertise in the subject matter: the more you know something and have deep understanding of the issues involved, the more you “chunk” information such that less working memory is required to process it and thus it looks like an amazing feat of multitasking (this is clearly a run-on sentence, please forgive).

    It’s not like air traffic controllers have a super human attention controls. Rather, they are very good at what they do. Deep expertise allows them “juggle” multiple streams of data. But juggling is a good analogy here—they are still dealing with one ball at a time, just very fast!

    The difference between air traffic controllers and Predator drone operators is the quality of data they receive. Air traffic data has been very standardized—these people know what to expect. And when things go awry, there are procedures for reducing the cognitive load to one problem. Predator drone operators are dealing with a lot more uncertainty, thus “chunking” of information is much more difficult.

    To reduce errors in programming, there is a “new” approach: extreme programming, where a team of two programmers work together on developing code. In the beginning, this is very difficult. But once the problems get ironed out, you get the benefit of two brains on one problem—fewer errors, more interesting code.

    I wonder if a similar approach would work for Predator drone operators. Not the pilot and co-pilot model, but this “extreme” pilot team approach.

  3. February 22, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Scientific American Journal published two articles in the current issue on multitasking: “Top Multitaskers Help Explain How Brain Juggles Thoughts” and “Mental Overload”

    “Top Multitaskers Help Explain How Brain Juggles Thoughts” in Brief (a direct quote from the article):

    1. Attempting to complete two or more tasks at once causes us to divide our attention, so that we focus less on each of those activities.

    2. A person who drives while talking on a cell phone, for example, is a worse driver than an individual at the legal limit of alcohol intoxication.

    3. A small percentage of the population defies this trend and multitasks with ease. These so-called supertaskers are helping to elucidate the underlying brain mechanisms supporting multitasking and attention.

    Here are links to previews:

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