Mulling over the truth of multitasking (2007-02-07)

"It’s not a Papal Edict, people; it’s 180 seconds of caffeinated ranting."--Merlin Mann, Responses to "43F Podcast: The Myth of Multi-tasking"

The summary for one of the podcasts I listened to from 43 Folders yesterday says this:
“Multi-taskers” are really just splitting their time and attention into smaller slices than you; no one can really do more than one thing at a time.
The "myth" of multitasking, Merlin says, is as credible as the yeti. He elaborates with exaggerated examples and the alleged expectation that we should be "parallel processing computers."

This caffeinated rant is confused from beginning to end. To "discover" that multitasking is "actually just... splitting... into very small slices" is to "discover" what is in computing the definition of multitasking. As the Wikipedia entry states, "The act of reassigning a CPU from one task to another one is called a context switch. When context switches occur frequently enough the illusion of parallelism is achieved."

Nevertheless true parallel processing--not simply the illusion of parallelism produced by multitasking--is also possible for humans. This morning I washed dishes while participating in a Skype standing meeting. My hands didn't stop rinsing dishes while I listened; I did two tasks simultaneously by any reasonable and useful definition.

Merlin's rant sounds as though its intent is to soothe the self-esteem of those who can't switch contexts easily. I disagree with the assertions and want to clarify the concepts. I find far more useful Steve Pavlina's "Do It Now" distinction between tasks requiring high attention and tasks requiring low attention:
The idea of multitasking may seem to contradict the previous piece of advice to work all the time you work. But whereas the previous tip refers to high intensity work where you must concentrate all your mental resources in order to do the best job you can, this tip addresses low intensity work where you have plenty of capacity to do other things at the same time, like standing in line, cooking dinner, flying on a plane, or walking from point A to point B. Multitasking shouldn't be used where it will significantly degrade your performance on a crucial task, but it should be intelligently used to take advantage of excess capacity.

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