Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Multitasking Considered Less Harmful?

As you know if you're close to me or follow my twitter stream, I'm reading Graham Wallas' Art of Thought.

I was reading through his chapter on Stages of Control, and was struck by this:
The Incubation stage covers two different things, of which the first is the negative fact that during Incubation we do not voluntarily or consciously think on a particular problem, and the second is the positive fact that a series of unconscious and involuntary mental events may take place during that period. [...] the period of abstention may be spent either in conscious mental work on other problems, or in a relaxation from all conscious mental work. The first kind of Incubation economizes time, and is therefore often the better. We can often get more result in the same time by beginning several problems in succession, and voluntarily leaving them unfinished while we turn to others, than by finishing our work on each problem at one sitting.
When so much of the writing resonates deeply with me, this particular paragraph's ending is jarring.

Could Dr. Wallas, writing in 1926, be entirely wrong about multitasking? Was the world of psychology and behavioral study so young that he attributed merit to practices now considered harmful or inefficient?  Or is he right that task switching is good for encouraging creative thought; perhaps merely that it is better than continuously focused thought?

I have noticed that leaving a task for a while can help me think more intuitively about it later.  When I learned about the incubation stage, it seemed to me that the breaks have allowed the new information to "cook" in the background and seep into my intuition where it can inform more intentional decision-making.

Perhaps incubation is one more benefit of switching programming partners mid-day. It could be that leaving an idea behind to incubate will make it all the more clear when we return (or make it more clear why it is not).

I have no certain conclusion here but I welcome your comments, complaints, discussion, rationalizations, etc.


  1. Tim, I think that going away from a problem to solve it has benefits. If I am spinning my wheels on something, going away for a night, many times helps me come up with a problem the next day.

    I associate multi tasking more with frequent changes to what someone is doing, not allowing them to complete small(ish) tasks. Changing it up can be healthy when done deliberatly.

  2. I've certainly seen a need to incubate a little while. I've had hard problems turn into easy answers if I go walk the dog, watch a show, play guitar, do a little foosball or ping-pong, etc. Sometimes concentrating when you should be incubating is the wrong choice.

    My suspicion is like yours, that breaking from one topic to let the brain do it's job is not the same as switching between several different contexts on an interrupt-driving basis.

    Normal multitasking interrupts preparation and verification, as well as getting in the way of illumination.

    So maybe there is an issue of timing and degree?