Many of us saw the latest gimmick from Samsung, called the Samsung Fold — besides poor naming — is has been a groundbreaking announcement as it is both a phone and tablet in one, with the ability to unfold into a 7.3 inch tablet.
In their announcement they said that the larger tablet screen is designed for running up to 3 apps at once — now I don’t know about you but I have a enough trouble trying to eat my lunch and read the newspaper without spilling it all over my shirt, let alone trying to use 3 apps at once!
There is a deeper more inherent problem at play here.
Yves Morieux, a Director at BCG and thought leader in new ways of organisational thinking, talks about the productivity crisis — how despite all the technological advancements over the past decades we are in fact seeing a decline in productivity.
Now I don’t know the specific of his research, what data they used, how wide the pool was or how in the hell they even measured “productivity” but it begs the question — is all the new technology helping us or in fact making us less effective?
We’ve all heard about the rise in phone addiction, the FOMO effect, instant gratification and others all contributing to dissolving patience and lower resiliency levels in younger generations. I wanted to touch on something else that maybe a culprit — Multitasking.
Would be able to run three apps at once really make you more productive? I mean you’re doing three things at the same time so it should be faster, right?
Humans cannot multitask. That is a fact. Yet if so why design a phone that enables uses to run three apps at once? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
I know, what you’re thinking, right now you’re probably reading this whilst binging on Netflix and eating dinner at the same time thinking “bullshit! I’m the queen of multitasking!”
However neuroscience will tell us that our brains as single threaded. That means as electronic signals are sent through our brain they will only travel through a single neural pathway at a time. Rather when we think we are “multitasking” what we are actually doing is rapidly switch back and forth between tasks. This is often referred to as context switching and it comes at a cost.
For most tasks they are menial or habits where our brains have optimised ourselves to use as little brain power as possible, this means the cost is low, other task require memory, concentration and are cognitively intensive activities resulting in the cost being higher.
Still don’t believe me? Well it’ll take less than 5 minutes to demonstrate the cost.
I’ve run this little experiment with hundreds of people over the years and the results are always the same.
You can do it now if you have a spare few minutes, a pen, blank paper and a stopwatch.
Start the stopwatch and see how fast you can write the following two words.
Stop the timer once you have finish writing the two words and record your time.
Again some output, same 14 letters, same two words.
Start the timer but this time instead of writing one name and then the other, you are going to write both names at the same time by writing both their first letters, then the second letters, etc (i.e. P then F, E then L...)
Stop the timer and write down your score.
Which was the fastest?
I’ve run this little experiment hundreds of times and the results are always the same — the second round takes on average 2–3x longer than the first round. Consider that, something as simple as writing 14 characters can cost twice as long to complete when multitasking, how do you see it playing out in the complexity of our work environment. In fact more often than not when I do this with teams I get them to pick two 5 letter words and the results are the same.
Consider that, something as simple as writing 14 characters can cost twice as long to complete when multitasking, how do you see it playing out in the complexity of our work environment.
I will note that I’ve noticed a convergence when the two words are similar — more similar = less time difference. This is because the contexts are similar, in some cases so similar that our mind starts to just copy the one word twice (minus the one or two character difference) rather than actually switching between contexts. It still takes longer to complete but the difference will be closer to 1.5x rather than 2–3x.
The term “context switching” has its origins in computing, it describes a computing function of which the system stores the state of a process or thread for it to be resumed at a later time. This is done at great cost. Switching from one process to another requires time and administration to store the state in memory and resume it.
More recent years saw an increase focus into the human brain and multitasking where a series a number of experiments have observed that the brain is in fact not capable of doing multiple tasks simultaneously, rather it rapidly switches between the tasks. As such the term context switching was very befitting and has since been used to also describe the same rapid switching between tasks in the human mind.
As computers have gotten more powerful and more capable of multi-threaded their ability to in fact multitask has been made possible via multiple processes running simultaneously.
Unfortunately we are not modern computers.
In a study conducted by David Meyer, the director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, found that when a person “multitasks” not only do the tasks take longer to complete but they also showed that the number of errors increased when context switching — I bet some of you made a mistake in the second round!
“When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer — often double the time or more — to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially” — David E. Meyer
What many neuroscientists have since found is that whilst context switching our brain’s do a very similar thing as too context switching in computing. Our brains actually store the information in the anterior part of our brain allowing us to later return to it. However just like in computing this comes at a cost. There is a cost to store the state of information and a cost to resume it. In fact when resuming a previous task our minds have to perform a kinda mini-restart which consumes time and can lead to more mistakes.
I can bet that almost everyone of you had a moment during writing those two words where you had to pause and rethink about where you were up to — maybe it happened more than once — that was your brain switching context and performing that mini-restart.
There’s a many other reasons why I wouldn’t purchase the Samsung Fold when it comes out but the appeal to run 3 apps at once is definitely lost on me. Cool gimmick, yes, but I’ll stick to focused time and getting shit done thanks!
- Productivity Crisis. Yves Morieux, Senior Partner & Managing Director BCG Dubai — How Too Many Rules at Work Keep You From Getting Things Done, TED Talk, June 2015
- Interview with David Meyer in “The Multitasking Generation” Wallis, Claudia (Mar 19, 2006).
- “Multitasking” used to describe capabilities in IBM Operating System/360 Concepts and Facilities — Witt, Bernard I. & Lambert, Ward (1965).