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How does the efficiency of multi-tasking differ by task type? My understanding is that multitasking impairs efficiency for cognitively challenging tasks.

Does this apply to trivial tasks as well?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome. The first sentence reads ... which we can v differ...? Is that a typo? Also, paperwork can be cognitively demanding too. It's quite a subjective thing. Basically you ask whether simple and complicated tasks both reduce efficiency? How do you define impaired efficiency? How do you define cognitively demanding? Did you do any prior research on this? Can you share where you are at at this stage? $\endgroup$ – AliceD Oct 4 '17 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ Citations on where your current understanding comes from are also appreciated. ;p I have studied this topic extensively and can likely provide you with an answer, but first I need to know what type of multitasking you are referring to. Concurrent multitasking (as in doing two things at the same time), or more long-term intertwining of tasks, frequently switching from one to the other over the course of minutes-hours? $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Oct 5 '17 at 12:51
  • $\begingroup$ In addition, 'efficiency' could also be clarified. In my answer I presumed you intend more 'typical' multitasking in everyday work (sequential multitasking) and efficiency in terms of impact on the performed work. $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Oct 5 '17 at 13:40
  • $\begingroup$ I can drive a car and listen to music and sing along and keep breathing at the close to perfect combustion wattage as multiple simultaneous tasks, none of those I would consider trivial, but all of them have long been swapped out of conscious constant basic software reprogramming into subconscious autonomous graphics processing. Singing three different songs simultaneously however is a task I would delegate to multiple cognitively undistracted computers or a computer with a multitasking operating system like opening three musical browser tabs on a Chromebook. $\endgroup$ – Roman Czyborra Oct 7 '17 at 20:55
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First, it is important to disambiguate between concurrent multitasking and sequential multitasking (Salvucci et al, 2009). In a recent publication I present a short overview on related work of both (Jeuris and Bardram, 2016):

During concurrent multitasking cognitive resources have to be divided across several competing parallel tasks, such as driving while talking on the phone. Many ‘dual-task’ studies investigate dual-task interference and reduction of performance while performing two simultaneous tasks. ...

In contrast to concurrent multitasking, sequential multitasking denotes the interleaving of several primary tasks which are executed one at a time. ... Studies investigating sequential multitasking are among other things interested in measuring the effects of task interleaving on productivity and accuracy. ...

Results show an inverted U-relationship between multitasking and productivity; there is thus an optimal amount of task switching which leads to the highest productivity. However, increased levels of multitasking lead to a significant loss in accuracy, indicating a trade-off between productivity and accuracy (Adler & Benbunan-Fich, 2012).

In regards to the effect of task difficulty on sequential multitasking, "subjective task difficulty has been found to be a determining factor: easy tasks benefit from multitasking by increasing stimulation, whereas hard tasks decrease performance as the result of an overload in mental workload (Adler & Benbunan-Fich, 2015)".

So to answer your question, at least one study has found that for the tasks they used more challenging tasks do 'suffer' more from multitasking. However, there is still an optimum amount of multitasking.

Salvucci, D. D., Taatgen, N. A., & Borst, J. P. (2009, April). Toward a unified theory of the multitasking continuum: From concurrent performance to task switching, interruption, and resumption. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1819-1828). ACM.
Jeuris, S., & Bardram, J. E. (2016). Dedicated workspaces: Faster resumption times and reduced cognitive load in sequential multitasking. Computers in Human Behavior, 62, 404-414.
Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2015). The effects of task difficulty and multitasking on performance. Interacting with Computers, 27(4), 430-439.
Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 70(2), 156-168.

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    $\begingroup$ + 1 very good references. I interpret the "optimum amount of multitasking" as multitasking without any significant effects on performance or error rate. $\endgroup$ – DesignerAnalyst Oct 6 '17 at 6:48
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    $\begingroup$ The inverted U-relationship in Adler 2012 refers to productivity only (progress made on the tasks), thus not taking errors into account. I believe accuracy was more linearly correlated. Obviously 'optimum' would depend highly on task type: e.g., the potential impact of 'errors'. $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Oct 6 '17 at 8:14
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The effects of multitasking are apparent even for the most trivial tasks. For example try walking and eating a sandwich at the same time, you will walk slower and more irregular. The multitasking effects though, are much less when the competing tasks are simple or familiar.

Exctract from this article :

In experiments published in 2001, Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, conducted four experiments in which young adults switched between different tasks, such as solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. For all tasks, the participants lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. As tasks got more complex, participants lost more time. As a result, people took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs were also greater when the participants switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar. They got up to speed faster when they switched to tasks they knew better.

Reference:

Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E. & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27, 763-797.

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    $\begingroup$ The study you reference is a 'task switching' study, not exactly the same as your example of "walking and eating a sandwich at the same time". E.g., see Salvucci et al., 2009. These types of studies are more interested in the effects of e.g. switching between different 'types' of 'task sets' (e.g., recognizing a number as odd or even, a character as a vowel or consonant). Although insightful to understand limitations of executive function and such, the degree to which this says something about 'higher-level' multitasking is questionable. $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Oct 5 '17 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @StevenJeuris even concurrent tasks involves some rapid switching, the central executive can work with only one thing at a time. Nevertherless I agree that multitasking is a very complex phenomenon with many factors like modality, familiarity, rapid/slow switching, sharing resources, motivation etc and we have to be cautious with any absolute generalization. However I tend to believe that even multitasking on trivial tasks has some minor effects. Here is some additional reference focusing on modality and practise. $\endgroup$ – DesignerAnalyst Oct 6 '17 at 6:35

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