How microtasks make work easier

Interruptions regularly prevent you from getting into the “flow” at work. Researchers like Shamshi Iqbal from Microsoft Research have systematically investigated how work can be structured more meaningfully and the brain can be relieved. This is what the Technology Review magazine reports in its current issue 4/2021 (at the kiosk or can be ordered online), which is also called Inexpensive bundle of print and digital editions gives.

The key to success are so-called microtasks – small, bite-sized tasks that can be done quickly on the side. In a study Iqbal initially gave the participants small tasks, for example correcting spelling mistakes in a text before they should start writing the next chapter. Their study showed that ideally you start with something very simple and slowly increase the difficulty. That lowers the hurdle to tackle the next big task.

In another experiment, Iqbal asked her subjects to leave notes with small tasks that still needed to be done while they were working on a document. For example, “I still have to add the source here”. A self-written tool allowed the test subjects to tackle these tasks precisely when they did not have a longer time window available, for example while waiting for the bus or the start of a meeting. With the tool, they were now able to research the missing source and add it directly to the document.

By the time they came back to their desk later, significantly more of these small tasks had already been completed than in a control group who had mobile access to their document but were not presented with any microtasks.

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More from MIT Technology Review

Together with colleagues, Iqbal also has a Tool developedthat integrates microtasks into users’ Facebook feed. After a few posts, you will now be presented with one of your tasks, such as researching a source. You didn’t have to leave Facebook to do this – this tool also automatically entered the completed tasks into the corresponding project. While about a third of the subjects simply ignored the tasks, a second third did them directly in Facebook and the rest returned directly to the document. One might suspect that the differences are due to different personality types.

The provides an indication of this research From Gloria Mark, Professor of Computer Science at the University of California: “For some, Facebook is a real break.” In an experiment, she unceremoniously blocked access to Facebook for test subjects. But only half became more productive as a result, the other half was less productive and also stressed. “Because we took the break away from them,” says Mark.

In addition, the self-interruptions increased. Test subjects then actively switched tasks on their own initiative or quickly checked the e-mails again. Microtasks can help to do this more consciously, says Mark: Instead of tasks, these could also contain activities for breaks.

This article is from issue 4/2021 of the Technology Review. The magazine will be available from May 20th, 2021 in stores and directly in the heise shop. Highlights from the magazine:

Because the need for interruptions and breaks varies depending on the task and personality, it is not easy to pre-structure tasks in the form of micro-tasks. And they shouldn’t interrupt the flow once you’ve found it. This is where technology can come into play to identify the state of a user. In the laboratory, for example, you can do quite well Find correlatesassociated with mental wandering or cognitive fatigue – for example the strength of the fluctuations in brain waves in the so-called alpha range.

But if artificial intelligence recognizes our way of working so well that it teases more and more performance out of us, it can also be dangerous, admits Iqbal: “If we can do our work anywhere, you have the responsibility not to overwork yourself.” Therefore she created micro-tasks for herself with content such as “breathing” or “yoga” or simply “taking a break”.


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