Multi-tasking, multi-threading, multi-thinking

J. Rothman started a lively discussion about the Costs of Multitasking. Programmers, for instance, suffer from the loss of focus and context when interrupted. As often with matters of context, this is not perceived as equally severe by everyone. G. Oakes said in his comment:

“Different people seem to have different levels of task switching that is tolerable or even enjoyable.”

My own experience includes periods of either extreme.

  • In the early 80s, programming on the mainframe made it quite normal to constantly work at two tasks in parallel: After submitting one program to a batch “input queue” we had enough time (at least 15 minutes) to concentrate on a second program before a beep signalled that the first job was on output queue. Paradoxically, this became worse after the waiting times shortened, because there was no use starting something else but we were impatiently waiting for the one job to execute. (And today, the waiting times are still a pain even though they are fractions of seconds, but still the systems dictates the pace!).
  • Later (when I was almost alone charged with caring for our emerging university network), there were continually shrinking time slices available for one task before the telephone interrupted it for another problem (which caused me to hate the telephone until today).


From this mixed experience, I don’t see multitasking as purely evil and would not advocate that weeks of focussing on a narrow context are desirable. The above-mentioned different people exhibit very different styles of multitasking.

Jack Vinson’s blog includes a great collection of posts about multitasking, and he pointed once to J. Baumgartner‘s piece on multithinking versus multitasking: He describes the kind of inspiration happening when “your mind occasionally turns to one task while you are working on another”, and shows how this can fruitfully be turned into creative ideas and synergies: By embracing the link between the two thoughts, quickly writing it down, and returning to the primary task.

I think this sort of “evenly hovering attention”, allowing for divergent thinking, and open for discovering new branching links with quick return, is a very different attitude than the fast context-switching that is often observed from senior management who seem to be amazingly able to focus for very short times on a given goal but who slice the tasks into so small pieces that these are arbitrarily exchangeable, atomized, contextless, and often pursued without passion and understanding. (The Eide’s described a neuronal association of the tasked-switching pattern: social motivation and reward.)

Yet another attitude towards multiple tasks/ threads is it what the generation Y is said to tend to. S. Downes impressed me (#36) with his discussion of multi-threaded new students/ new learning (see also his previous 3 slides for a deeper understanding of this notion). He contrasts this nonlinear mode with the linguistic “mode of thought” slides 24-26.

(And it’s great that Slideshare now allows us to directly jump into his PPT presentation, allowing for a quick connection to a wider context, and a quick return…)

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