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The Simplest Task Can Scramble The Best Brain

In a recent article, we discussed here already the perils of multitasking. What is the productivity loss it causes in practical terms?

We found that we are speaking about a serious issue in terms of productivity, so this time, let us look a bit more closely at the nuts and bolts of it.

The cost of multitasking

People often end up multitasking not out of their own will, but prompted by external factors. For example, they may have to use many applications or even systems to perform an individual task, co-workers may come and interrupt their routines or tight schedules may force them to try doing many things simultaneously.

But whether prompted or deliberate, can the productivity losses caused by multitasking be quantified? Various estimates in different measures have been given, indicating that it:

The bottom line is, whatever figures we throw in from just about whichever party, they consistently show substantial losses.

Great confusion from the simplest task

Human multitasking means performing two or more tasks simultaneously. According to the Society for Neuroscience, the brain is capable to perform two tasks at one time. But that is already difficult. Adding just one more task makes it all definitely too much for the brain, its working memory in particular.

In this context, the word task means an activity, which requires the user to specifically concentrate. It is something that the user just cannot do automatically. In fact, such activity can be very simple, as indicated by the famous piece of practical demonstration we will look at next: Henrik Kniberg’s multitasking name game, familiar from many a productivity workshop.

Here is how it goes. A person is asked to write down five names:

  • First, the names are to be written one at a time.
  • Then, the names are written in multitasking mode: the first letter of each name is written first, followed by the second, the third and so on, until each name is complete.
  • Finally, mistakes possibly made in the process are corrected.

Typically, the total time consumed writing the names is as follows:

  • 30 seconds with the names written separately
  • 60 seconds with multitasking applied.

All in all, one would think that the mental effort required for writing a few names is very simple. Such a surprise to see it cause such a strain on the brain!

But how is this all related to the usability of office applications and document automation, our key interest at Documill? Well, let’s discuss that in another article soon – we indeed see a very clear connection!

By | February 10th, 2016|

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