Why The Term “Multi-tasking” Is All Wrong

The term Multi-tasking has become prolific.  If you have read an article about the millennial generation, Web 2.0, or the power and impact of the internet recently, you’ve no doubt come across it regularly.  It’s often referenced as the great enabler of the world’s tech savvy youths and just as often it’s fiercely debated as the great quality inhibitor. Prominent efficiency blogs like Lifehacker deride the term and lambaste multi-tasking as a quality and efficiency reducer. Surveys have been done, books written, and a ferocious flurry of debate has arisen around the benefits, negatives, and great undecideds associated with multi-tasking.  A debate that has spilled onto this blog repeatedly with the most pronounced instance occurring in my 2 part series on Educating Millennials. Unfortunately, we have it all wrong.

The term multi-tasking has never sat well with me.  Sure, it seems to fit some of the behaviors and is close enough in definition and appearance to what’s actually occurring that it’s been the best and easiest way to describe what’s going on – but as a tech savvy millennial the shoe never quite seemed to fit.

Multi-tasking is the simultaneous execution of multiple actions. Juggling is multi-tasking, patting your head and rubbing your stomach is multi-tasking. The way I search the web, chat, watch a movie and write all at once — That is something different.  It is parallel processing. The difference is subtle, but significant.

What is Parallel Processing?

First, clear your mind of any pre-conceived definitions you may harbor for the term parallel processing. What I’m talking about has nothing to do with parallel computing or Amdhal’s law. The fundamental difference between multi-tasking and parallel processing is the way our minds respond to, and deal with, the actions we are handling.  Using my previous examples, when juggling or patting your head and rubbing your stomach you’re performing two actions simultaneously.  As I’m sure most of us will agree, that’s incredibly difficult and our performance decreases exponentially the more tasks we add.

Parallel processing, in contrast, deals with a cycling, structured, hierarchical list which is continuously executed at a comfortable pace.  The speed with which that list is executed and repeated depends on an individual’s familiarity with the tasks and the time/focus each task requires.  A juggler can’t stop to take more time with one ball without losing the other 2.  An individual switching between browser tabs, a movie, and several conversations can. The advantage that millennials and tech savvy individuals the world over have developed is not the ability to do more at once, but rather the ability to handle more tasks almost simultaneously in a more time efficient and effective fashion.

The Skill Set

One of the fundamental components of parallel processing is task familiarity. If I sat you down in front of a massively multi-layer online game and you had never played before, your entire focus would be consumed by trying to move forward while interacting with the spatial environment. Chances are the degree of your familiarity with the action would be so small that it would consume almost all of your attention to execute it. However, fast forward a bit and you’ll have gained familiarity with the process and be able to automate most of it subconsciously. Before long you’ll be carrying on 5 conversations through the in-game chat channels, interacting with other players, traversing the virtual world and engaging in complex actions all seemingly simultaneously. In these instances, there are simply too many actions to be able to manage and participate in them all at the same time.  You can, however, cycle through actions based on the immediacy of their need and respond to each fully in lightning quick bursts.

One of our most incredible abilities is to take certain tasks, develop a familiarity with them, and then transition them into a familiar ‘second nature’ skill set.  When you write, you typically don’t have to think about how you hold a pencil or what muscles make the letters you want.  Further, as you write words, the familiar ones come to you naturally almost without a second thought.  It’s only the ones you’re unfamiliar with that you have to pause and spell out letter by letter, sound by sound. There are thousands of every day tasks we take for granted as developed skills and hardly notice. If you wear glasses, have taken them off, but still gone to push them up on your nose, you’ve experienced a perfect illustration of how our brain is capable of executing and automating ‘second nature’ behaviors almost subconsciously.

Why It Matters

The modern business environment is not the only thing changing.  The world we know, perceive, and interact with is being driven forward by powerful, expansive new technologies.  Understanding the way in which we interact with these technologies and how they change our behaviors is fundamental to understanding what’s really going on around us. The process followed while writing a hand written letter in the 1800s is almost unrecognizable when compared to the steps and process employed by a modern individual writing an e-mail or research paper. Significantly more has changed than the technology.  The very way we relate to, formulate, and execute actions has evolved.  Unfortunately, despite changing our behaviors, our perception of how the processes should work and the advice we offer on how to execute it, has not changed drastically.

This also becomes very significant in our understanding of what looks like a social disconnect. If you’ve ever walked up to someone engaging in heavy parallel tasking and had trouble engaging them in conversation or getting a response from them, it’s because you’re disrupting the process they’re comfortable with and the rate with which they’re executing the sequence. Chances are, whatever activities they’re carrying out are balanced near the uppermost end of what they can comfortably process. They’re in a rhythm, executing a sequence of actions and able to perform at that rate. Enter the parent or roommate who wants to talk about their day in real time, without consideration for the other 5-15 processes the individual has going on, and you end up disrupting the flow of parallel processing. The end result is always a general break down across the board.  I find it interesting that social norms tell us it’s rude to walk up to a conversation two people are having privately about African swallows and begin talking to them about astrological geometry, but not similarly rude to effectively do the same thing when an individual is using a digital device.

I invite you all to join me in changing the dialog surrounding technology and multi-tasking. Before honest dialogue can move forward it’s necessary that we adopt descriptive language like ‘parallel processing‘ that accurately identifies and describes the phenomenon.

Agree?  Disagree? Thoughts or comments?  Please share them in comment form below.  As always I love your feedback and discussion. Additionally, I’d like to thank Dr. John Crosby for his feedback and collaborative ideas on this subject.