Multitasking doesnt work

I read a post by Jay the other day about multitasking, or rather the myth of multitasking. Without going into the technical details of how computers (appear!) to multitask with humans it doesn’t work. People boast about it because it makes them seem great, and people write it on their CV because they think (and they may well be right) that it is what employers want to read.

In actual fact people don’t multitask very well, certainly not in creative or development environments. Focusing on one thing at a time is a far more effective way of achieving objectives and maintaining quality. If you really are that busy that you feel the need to multitask then in actual fact what you probably need is to outsource, leaving you to focus on single important tasks at a time.

People often get backed into a corner by lack of planning, hence they end up multi-tasking. How otfen have you left something to the last minute, only to find out that you then find something else that is also urgent?

Sometimes I find myself multitasking without even knowing it. Multitasking doesn’t have to mean working on two projects at once, it can be as simple as reading the email that just came in, or answering an MSN message.

Jay sites a study by Eben Pagan about how long it takes for your mind to adjust back to what you were doing (and become productive again) once you have been distracted. Apparently it is 10 minutes or so. This doesn’t sound a lot on the face of it, but if you are distracted 6 times in a day (and you probably get distracted a lot more than that) then that is already 1 hour. I’m sure you could find a better use for that hour, I certainly could!

Eben Pagan says that “multitasking lowers the IQ more than smoking pot”. While I would not condone smoking the weed as a viable alternative to multitasking he does have a point.

Sometimes it is worth remembering that email is not instant messenger. The email that just came in will still be there in half an hour, when you have finished the job you were doing, yet for some reason there can be an overwhelming compulsion to deal with it right away.

A good experiment is to close all distractions (email/MSN/twitter etc) while you are working. If you spend an hour focusing on what you should be doing instead of multitasking you will be surprised how much you get done.

There was a lot more to Jay’s post than just multitasking, but as is often the case I read a post and something jumps out to me over and above the rest.

Have a read for yourself and let me know, do you suffer from multitasking?

6 replies
  1. Lyndi
    Lyndi says:

    Women are supposed to be the masters of multi-tasking, I am not sure about this at all. If I am doing something that I really have to concentrate on, I get irritated if I am interrupted by other things.

    The small things are fine, I can be reading in Google Reader, be answering mails, writing something short on Twitter, checking stats or visiting a forum, all basically in the same time slot. With things like this I love to hop from the one to the other.

    On the other side of the spectrum I do have a problem. When I have to code something or even write a blog post, I immediately move to my Notebook. There I have no Internet connection and I cannot be disturbed. When I have done what I have to do I simply move the stuff across to my desktop for publishing or whatever.

  2. Jim
    Jim says:

    @Lyndi: Regarding women being able to multitask, I was wondering if anyone would mention that. I think the confusion is between a lot of women *liking* to multitask and *being able* to multitask. Just because they like to do it, doesn’t mean they are productive doing it. In terms of effectiveness doing it, I don’t think there is a gender difference.

    That’s a good idea you have regarding the notebook. I tend to switch off things like email/IM etc when I need to focus, if I don’t then the quality of what I produce does suffer, and that irritates me.

  3. Ching Ya
    Ching Ya says:

    Indeed, when it comes to important tasks that require much attention, it’s advisable to focus 1 instead of many; however, at times I find multitasking do helps in saving time, when it comes to less significant tasks. It differs from certain people on which grabs the most attention out of them. As long you managed to stay focus on getting the tasks done, it’s cool.

  4. Jim
    Jim says:

    @Ching Ya: You are spot on, it all depends what you are doing at the time, how important or involved it is, and to some extent on the individual. As with all these things there is not a “one cap fits all” solution, but getting distracted by constant interuptions and multitasking can sometimes affect productivity without you even noticing, so it’s something to keep in mind.

    Thanks for the comment!

  5. Piggynap
    Piggynap says:

    It’s really interesting what you mention about Eben Pagan’s study – no-one ever mentions that multitasking could also be called ‘distraction’! Obviously studies can be repeated/have different results etc but it’s still a valid point. I think that some people do multitask well, often because they have to. Others can’t concentrate on a job unless they have total silence. Either way, the more tasks you add into the mix the more stressful the result. Today with email/phones etc constantly demanding attention it’s a more stressful workplace and there’s more to be juggled. Maybe we should all have ‘alone time’ for a couple of hours every day to just get things done!

  6. Jim
    Jim says:

    @Piggynap: Yes, the stress aspect is a valid point. The idea of taking some time away from work and away from the computer is a really good one. I would love to have the self discipline to do that on a regular basis, but alas one down side of loving your work is you rarely take enough time away from it.

    Another thing… Have you ever experienced the person who flaps around saying “I thrive on pressure (stress?)”, while you stand there thinking “not from where I’m standing, you don’t!”?


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