In praise of mono-tasking

In praise of mono-tasking

Multi-Tasking and Driving

Image by Mike "Dakinewavamon" Kline via Flickr

Mono-tasking is making a come back. Last year research showed that when we try to multi-task ourselves, we just do more things less well and less quickly. Classic Album Sundays clubs are opening up to listen to music with rules of no texting, no talking, no distractions. Suddenly, more and more articles are appearing to confirm what our school-teachers were telling us forty years ago: sit still, pay attention, and don’t fidget.

I got into the idea of computer multi-tasking earlier than most people. Right back in the days of the IBM AT, I was running a 286 machine with Desqview 286 to enable me not only to task-switch, which at the time was nearly the holy grail, but also, with the help of LIM-EMS expanded memory, to run more than one process at a time.

Back in those days — 1990, to be precise — a 286 machine running at 12 Mhz (count ’em) with 2 MB of expanded memory was, well, souped up. 12 Mhz was a bit passé by then, and the 386 was out, but, well 2 MB, that was quite something. As a colleague remarked, “what are you going to do with all that memory?”

I don’t know how many hours, even days, I spent getting Desqview to do its business, especially when I reached the point of having Desqview switching between Microsoft Windows 2.0 and GEM, which gave me access to both Ventura Publisher and Corel Draw. Even while I was doing it, I was wondering whether I was saving time, or losing it. In retrospect, I was losing it, in a not much more productive way than when I customised all the icons in Windows 2.0, only to have them all deleted when I upgraded to Windows 3.

Aside from the time I spent getting it to work, I discovered fairly quickly that when you were running several processes, each of them capable without much fuss of putting the machine into an infinite loop, or simply crashing and restarting, everything became much, much more fragile.

Bill Gates, at the time, argued that people did not want multi-tasking, which was promised through IBM’s competitor operating system OS/2, they just wanted task-switching. He was probably right. Very few of the applications in use at the time, such as WordPerfect, Lotus 123 and Jim Button’s PC-File DB, actually executed tasks in the background, or, for most of the time, executed tasks you would want running in the background. This was partly because computers barely ran fast enough to keep up with human entry (and the moment they did, we switched to Windows versions to slow them down again), and partly because, aside from the nerderati, most of us don’t really use our computers in that way. At least, we didn’t then.

With Windows 3, multi-tasking was suddenly de-rigeur, but, even then, for most of us, it didn’t have much purpose.

The change came once we started fitting modems to our computers, sending faxes, collecting email, and (even) surfing on the nascent World Wide Web. 14 kbit fax cards tied up your machine for as much as a minute while they sent the fax, and if you were using them to multi-fax (one of the main purposes of having a card rather than a fax-machine), they could tie it up for an hour. 28 800 modems weren’t a great deal better. Suddenly, the ability to get on with another task, such as word processing, while the computer picked up your email was not a geek’s dream, it was an ordinary user’s necessity.

In those days Windows and Mac multi-tasking was non-preemptive. That means that each application took as much time as it wanted to finish it’s particular thing, and then passed control back to the operating system so that the operating system could have a look round to see if any other applications wanted some time. Of course, if any of those applications got stuck, they would never pass control back to the system, and the machine would freeze. We remember it well. Users of UNIX and other ‘real’ operating systems used to sneer at the Mac and Windows brigade: UNIX was from the start a true preemptive multitasking system, as Mac OS X and Windows NT were later, which meant that the operating system was always in control, handed out clock-cycles like the Queen giving coins to Chelsea Pensioners, and, equally regally, shut down applications that froze.

But enough of the computer history.

All this is important because, in parallel, we humans started to believe that we could multi-task, and that this would make us more productive and more fulfilled people. The varian on this was the notion that women could multi-task, since it was in their genes, while men were limited to doing just one thing at a time.

The latest batch of research has shown that this is largely tosh. We naturally do a number of tasks at the same time without thinking about them, such as breathing, feeling, seeing. That really is written into our genes. But the notion that we could (and therefore should) do more than one task at a time which would previously have required our full attention is largely a product of trying to apply the behaviour of computers to the behaviour of ourselves.

It is high time that mono-tasking makes a come back, and I praise those who are at the forefront of it. We learned some time ago that you cannot hold a mobile phone and drive safely. I remember the horrific story of a truck driver who was actually texting at the moment that he caused a fatal accident. But can we read a book while listening to music? Watch TV while eating dinner? Go for a run while listening to an iPod? The research seems to suggest yes — provided that we are not trying to use the same part of our minds (I’m not going to say brains, because I don’t think the research has shown this) for two tasks at once. So, reading a book while listening to instrumental music might work — in fact, people have enjoyed it for centuries. But reading a book while listening to the lyrics of a song is going to cause more problems.

How many of us have been trying to write an email while on the phone to someone? This, it appears, is not good. Surfing the net while watching TV? We must all have done (that is, everyone who has a TV and either a laptop or an iPad), but how much did we actually get from the TV show?

What really got me thinking about mono-tasking was when I got the iPad last year. For those who remember, the iPad was widely ridiculed before it was launched as a device that had no purpose, no market category, and was woefully deficient in technical specifications. The most vile of these deficiencies, according to the critics, was the lack of multi-tasking.

I actually found I rather liked it. For the first time ever, I was using a computing device which was large and high resolution enough to do what I really wanted, and with just one task at a time. Back in the old 286 days, the resolution of computer monitors was, by modern standards, rubbish, and the kind of graphics that they could process was essentially static, mono images, or, if not mono, gaudy images made from a palette of 256 colours. By the time computer monitors were beginning to be beautiful and a bit quick, we had already launched straight into the world of more-than-one-task-at-a-time on the screen, even if the computer itself was only processing the foreground task.

Apps such as FlipBoard really got me enjoying the benefits of just doing one thing at once.

Of course, critics would argue that, having drunk the Steve Jobs ‘Kool-aid’ (which I believe is American for anti-freeze, but you can never quite tell), I was going to simply believe in the superiority of anything Apple brought to market. There may be something in that. But, when Apple did introduce some kinds of multi-tasking on the iPhone and iPad, I actually found it a step backwards, not a step forwards. The machines may be able to do it, but I no longer really want it, and would turn it off if I could.

When I did start thinking about it, I realised that the things I really like do just one thing at a time. My camera takes pictures. It doesn’t make phone calls, surf the web, make recommendations about local restaurants or offer to link me to my long lost friends. My guitar plays music. Actually, all my guitars play music, but I can only play one of them at a time, and I can’t really do anything else while I am doing it (well, maybe sing, but that’s really part of the music). The coffee machine only makes coffee, the kettle only boils water.

You can call me a luddite if you like (though my early geek credentials with 286 machines might give you pause, and, if that’s not enough, I do still remember some of the calls from writing Z80 machine code before the invention of the ZX-80), but I really do enjoy things that do just one thing, and do it well. Of course I love the convenience of an iPad that can do lots of things (though only one at a time) and the iPhone for the same reasons, and if I didn’t have an iPhone, I’m sure I would be happy with some kind of Android phone.

When I do the thing I probably love most, which is writing, I’ll write in whatever environment you give me. But, for myself, I use something called Jer’s Novel Writer, which is the most stripped down word processor you can imagine, with a special screen mode that blanks out all of the other icons, backgrounds, tasks and applications. It doesn’t do graphics, doesn’t allow much in the way of text formatting, doesn’t have mail merge, tables, sorting, embedding, hyper linking. It’s just for writing. A bit like the old days of writing in WordPerfect for DOS on a 286 machine. Or using an Amstrad PCW. Or, as I did through five years of school and the first two years of college, pound away on an old Imperial manual typewriter.

Image by maccath via Flickr

The Imperial — pretty much exactly the model in the picture — had no spell check, no delete key, and the fullest extent of its graphics capability was switching the ribbon from black to red and back again.

I loved that typewriter. It’s where I began to learn the craft of writing. I lent it out when I first got an electronic machine, and never got it back.

Some days, I still miss it. It was beautiful, it made a rhythmic sound that was its own music. And, because you had to pound the keys and hurl yourself across the carriage return, it never, ever tempted me to try to do something else at the same time.

  • Dave Shreve

    Wow! Do you bring back memories. I don’t go back as far as you, only to Windows 3.1. I, too, was making icons – well, not making them, but putting them on my desk top, just to have them there. I didn’t know what a computer really did, although I had one. Hot, too – 4 mb of memory at about $100 / mb (each).

    I’m not sure about the monotasking, though. Except with some things, like the things you really want to enjoy. Ever had a piece of your favorite pie and because you were talking so much you were done eating it and realized that you didn’t get to enjoy even a bite of it? One thing I do on my PC which is monotasking is PC TV. I like my favorite basketball tream here in Memphis (Go, Tigers), but can’t get them on TV quite alot because of blackouts. When I watch, I really want to watch and see what is happening. I found a good Satellite TV software program ( which let’s me settle into my PC all alone, away from the noise of the family, and just have fun.

    I, too, write quite a bit. I don’t do the stripped down version you use. I started with WordPerfect 6 and have never left it. Actually, I use version 8 the most, even though I have 13. I have never gone to Word, I hate it. It is like driving a VW Beetle (old version). My Corel is the Lincoln.

    You have written a very good article and it brought back many memories, I’m sure for alot of people. Bless you!

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