Good and Bad Multitasking?

I was looking at the interesting web site of Canadian SciFi author Robert J. Sawyer and found an article in which he discusses Multitasking, and views it quite positively. In fact he says “The complaints about multitasking are the last gasps of the couch-potato generation” – the new, “wired” generation will practice multitasking to great advantage.

My first reaction was of astonishment, since we at IORG all know the body of research that proves multitasking – the futile attempt to “do five things at once” – can reduce effectiveness, creativity, and so forth. On closer reading, however, it became clear that Sawyer has quite a different definition of “Multitasking” in mind. He refers to the ability of people to seek information from multiple sources, as when students stop listening to their teacher to browse the web, or SMS, or tweet, in class. You can read the article and form your opinion; in my case this started me thinking: how come the same word refers to “our” kind of multitasking – trying to respond to endless interruptions – and to Sawyer’s exuberant exploration of knowledge resources?

Leaving aside the fact that nobody really does multiple things at once, so it’s more a matter of time-slicing, I concluded that there is indeed good multitasking and bad multitasking: it’s good if the person chooses what and when to multitask on, and it’s destructive if the choice is forced by incoming, unsolicited interrupters. In Sawyer’s classroom example students go where they wish in knowledge space; in the typical workplace environment knowledge workers are endlessly forced to drop one thing to respond to another.


  1. His concept sounds a bit like Linda Stone’s “Continuous Partial Attention.” It makes some sense, and I think it’s probably true that people switch between tasks a lot more frequently than they used to, but it seems like we’re not recognizing the cost.

    Somebody should do a study and see whether those students who google stuff during lectures do any better or worse than a student who googles afterwards. Or whether people gain anything from tweeting during a conference talk. If it’s a boring lecture and you don’t care about it then sure, you’re accomplishing more if you do something else instead, but you’re not getting as much from the lecture.

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