I’m thrilled to be a CIO UK blogger, because I get to write about two of my favourite subjects - technology and productivity. These two topics go quite nicely together, as technology usually enhances productivity. Not always though. Sometimes technology hinders productivity, for example, when computers distract people in meetings.

You may have heard of the 2005 study conducted in the UK by Dr. Glenn Wilson, with funds from HP. The key takeaway published in the press was that multitasking lowers your IQ more than if you were high on marijuana. Wilson admits that the experiment was far from rigorous, and that the comparison with the effects of marijuana was sensationalist. In all fairness to Wilson, funding was limited, and there was never any pretense of obtaining scientifically valid results. Leave it to the press to make a sound bite out of the results.

Attention-grabbing headlines aside, few would argue that we are as productive when switching between unrelated tasks. Remember the term “multitasking“ comes from the computer world, and refers specifically to the situation where several programs vie for the services of a single CPU. The CPU can only really work on one thing at a time, but it has to distribute its time among the different tasks. Whenever a processor switches tasks, overhead is incurred as the computer stores the state of one task and reloads the state of another.

Like computers, people frequently appear to be doing several things at once. One key difference between a computers and people, is that computers can switch context with one hundred percent accuracy, whereas human beings lose information each time they stop one task to start work on another. So on each switch, a computer loses time, but not information; whereas, a person loses both time and information.

For humanoids, there’s a difference between switching between two related activities and two activities that are entirely separated contextually. Try writing email to one person while you are having a conversation on a different topic with somebody else and you’ll see what I mean.

Consider also that no government has ever tried to outlaw talking to a passenger in the front seat while you’re driving, yet many countries have made it illegal to talk on a mobile phone through a handsfree kit while your driving. That’s because when you’re on a mobile phone, even when you aren’t physically distracted by holding it, you are mentally distracted because you’re talking to somebody who is not in the same context as you.

I’m not one to sensationalise, but a 2011 study commissioned by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) shows that when you talk on a mobile phone through a handsfree while driving, your reaction time is increased by more than if you were high on marijuana. You’re 26 per cent slower versus 21 per cent slower under the influence of cannabis.

Once you get out of your car and back in the office, you’ll find there is a place for multitasking. It turns out that when you switch between tasks within the same working sphere, you may be more productive. That’s right, researchers think you might complete both tasks quicker. Presumably, this is because you work over the ideas and take a different perspective on a problem by switching to something else that’s related.

Studies are still being conducted by researchers, such as workplace multitasking expert Gloria Mark, to try to understand more about the effects of different kinds of interruptions (for example, external versus internal), and the effects of context (how the different tasks are related). In the meantime, unless people are using technology for things within the working sphere of a meeting, CIOs may want to follow the advice of Red Hat’s president and CEO.

Jim Whitehurst says, “I insist that people close laptops and not use smartphones during meetings. Because when you get right down to it, you aren’t really being that thoughtful on your laptop or your smartphone and you aren’t paying attention to the meeting either. In the end, you’re doing both badly.”