Are We Multitasking Ourselves Into Chaos?

Information technology professionals generally eat their own dog food. That is, as a group, we practice what we preach. Go to any place where IT people gather, and you'll see the latest and greatest in communications devices -- phones, pagers and various input/output hardware.

I have always been of two minds, though, when it comes to the "always on/always available" issue. On the one hand, I have come to rely on Wi-Fi in airports. It has given me the ability to quickly download my e-mail before boarding a plane, thereby making the flight much more productive.

On the other hand, I have resisted using a BlackBerry or similar device, even though colleagues have assured me that I will love it once I give it a try.

Here's the quandary: I already feel that I am in touch so much of the time. Am I really missing out by being out of touch while I walk from my car to the office, or in a taxi on the way to a hotel? Do people really need access to me when I'm in line at the grocery store?

There is some scientific evidence that my resistance to being "always on" is not just based on my own stubborn streak. Nobel Prize-winning behaviorist Herbert A. Simon revolutionized that field with his notion of bounded rationality. Bounded rationality states that the world is so large and complex, we don't have the capacity to understand everything. Simon theorized that the nature of the human mind actually limits our ability to be rational.

In other words, because of the great complexity around us, we make less-than-perfect decisions -- decisions that are bounded by our own inability to consider an infinite number of factors.

It's kind of like when you are shopping for a major purchase, like a car. You do copious amounts of research, but at some point you make your decision based on the information you have on hand. You may not have made the perfect decision, but it was the best you could do while still juggling other commitments and responsibilities.

But where are the boundaries? I've noticed lately that it seems to have become quite acceptable to send instant messages to others in the middle of meetings. So, in addition to listening to multiple speakers at these corporate get-togethers, we now have to juggle instant message input from those same colleagues. Inevitably, during such a meeting someone will be asked a question, and it's apparent that he hasn't been paying attention to the speaker. Rather, he's been reading and responding to comments about said speaker or some other topic entirely.

Let's examine another common IT tableau. Many hard-working IT professionals attend conferences. At these events, attendees are often given the opportunity to sit in on as many as six or seven speaker sessions per day on a variety of complex topics. Attendance at these events often requires travel on the part of the IT employee and an expense of several thousand dollars on the part of the IT professional's employer.

Yet, in spite of the great deal of time and expense associated with this activity, it's becoming common to see half the audience typing away on their computer screens while purportedly listening to the speaker. Since many of these events are now set up with wireless access, attendees can be connected to their offices during sessions.

Now, it's certainly possible that the dedicated IT professionals are using their PCs to take notes. My own informal survey suggests, however, that this is rarely the case. Rather, most of the screens I've eyeballed show that their owners are answering e-mail, working on projects or even playing solitaire.

There are two issues here: First, there's an ethical one. Is it fair to attend a conference (at significant expense to an employer) and not devote adequate attention to the content? Most would say no.

Second, is it really possible to multitask effectively enough to pay attention to a speaker while participating in one or several e-mail or IM dialogues as well? Perhaps it is, but my gut tells me that bounded rationality kicks in at some point.

Are we multitasking ourselves into chaos? Are we doing so many things at once that we do none well? Or am I just missing some genetic mutation that enables some folks to thrive amid chaos?

Barbara Gomolski, a former Computerworld reporter, is a vice president at Gartner Inc., where she focuses on IT financial management. Contact her at

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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