This will probably stir up vigorous protests, but in thinking about it, I realized that dual monitors is a special case of multi-tasking. While I can see certain cases where it would be useful, in general I think people are kidding themselves if they think they are being more productive when multi-tasking. Some exceptions include things like sending emails on your Blackberry during boring meetings (which by definition aren’t very productive anyway), or having multiple documents displayed side by side when you are trying to consolidate them.
I did a post last year about a Stanford study that shows that when people try to multi-task, they do each “task” less well than if they worked on one thing at a time. So while you may get “more” work done, it is very likely to be of a lower quality. Is the trade-off worth it? The point seems to be worth repeating, so here it is:
The issue of multitasking gets sporadic attention – most recently on the subject of texting while driving (which could also be construed as a death wish). But it is not new. I always recall my driving instructor many years ago saying that you shouldn’t try to make out while driving because you couldn’t pay proper attention either to the road or to the girl.
One of the most recent studies, done at Stanford, is the one that many recent news stories are based on. It shows that:
“People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”
The fact of the matter is that “multitasking” in a real sense (or as a computer would understand it) does not really exist. What multitasking really amounts to is that you divide up your time into more or less small “slices” and simply switch rapidly from one “slice” to another. You are still doing one thing at a time, but switching back and forth in rapid succession. So if you “multitask” by doing four things in twelve minutes, you actually focus (for example) on each one of them three times in one minute “slices.” For better or worse, human beings simply do not have quad core (or even dual core) brains.
This understanding is behind one of the classic recipes for ways in which lawyers can more efficiently manage their workflow is to set aside one or two periods in a day to deal with email, and to turn off your email during the rest of the day to avoid distraction.
However, this sort of advice runs counter to the current obsession with multitasking, texting, twittering and instant answers to email. Thus the growth of 2-monitor (or even 3-monitor) setups is due to the desire to keep more and more programs open at the same time and swap back and forth between them. Similarly, people who run stock tickers or sports tickers, not to mention Instant Messaging clients on their desktops are just inviting interruption and distraction.
Multi-monitor setups can be very useful if you regularly work on tasks that involve consulting multiple sources – but just having your email open on a right-hand screen is an invitation to disruption and lack of productivity.
To increase productivity you have to reduce the tendency toward rampant multitasking. Or, to put it another way, instead of dividing up your time into “slices” of 2 minutes, and switching back and forth, try to divide up your time into bigger slices of 15 minutes, half hour, etc. In some cases you may not be able to control this. There are phone calls you absolutely have to take. However, in others – only dealing with email twice a day in segments of a half hour at a time or answering all your phone calls at the end of the day, for example – you may be able to bring at least a small amount of order to the chaos of multitasking. This approach is embodied by an attorney who is in a meeting or working on drafting an important document and tells his assistant to “hold my calls.”
In short, what the Stanford study cited above shows, is that people who “multitask” do each one of the tasks less well than someone to takes the same amount of time but does them one at a time. So yes, most of what passes for multitasking is inefficient and counterproductive – and will lead to performing each task less well than if it were done as a single task all at once.