Monday, November 30, 2009

Multitasking and Music

One theory for how human multitasking works:

"It appears that rule activation takes more time for switching from familiar to unfamiliar tasks than for switching in the opposite direction... [T]ask switching may often be mediated by a rule-activation stage of executive control through which the rules for prior tasks are disabled and the rules for current tasks are enabled in distinct operations."
Multitasking is necessary in business to the extent that unexpected higher-priority items need to be able to preempt lower-priority activities. However, frequent gratuitous task-switching is a productivity drain that should obviously be avoided.

On the plus side, engaging in side activities that don't come to the attention of your brain's "executive system" may be relatively harmless. Under many circumstances, listening to music may be one such activity; the data on the topic is mixed. One line of studies claim that music can reduce cognitive performance; for example, lyrical music may harm recall in the short term. Other studies claim listening to enjoyable music over the course of multiple weeks can increase productivity by producing positive affect and lowering stress.

Advantages of listening to music include:
  • Positive affect
  • Reduction in mental fatigue
  • Reduced stress
  • Screening out other environmental distractions
The emotional benefits can often increase productivity. The main disadvantage is a risk that the music itself can become a distraction, especially for more complicated tasks. Some factors that may affect the cost/benefit ratio (again, the data is mixed, and many of these points have been unevenly replicated, so take with even more of a grain of salt than usual):
  • In terms of productivity benefits for simple tasks, the genre of music may be less relevant than whether you find the music enjoyable.
  • In terms of distraction, certain genres (such as lyrical and pop instrumental) may be more distracting than others.
  • The simpler your tasks are, the greater the productivity boost; conversely, the more complicated the tasks, the more distraction can harm you. However, even the tasks involved in a typical software development workflow may be simple enough to gain some productivity benefits.
  • Extroverts might gain a greater productivity boost than introverts do.
 See also:



Every link in this post is broken, which is too bad because I've long wondered what effect music has.