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Multi-tasking

Dec - 6 - 2007
Nicole C. Engard

So – it turns out that I missed a few studies that have found that multi-tasking is actually counter-productive. I always thought that being able to do multple things at once lead to more productivity – but after I posted the link to Jarina’s article, I got some links sent to me about how multi-tasking actually leads to less productivity.

From 43 Things a quote from the NY Times:

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.

From Overcoming Laziness:

You see, humans are terrible at doing more than one thing at a time, even though most of us think we're good at it. But when we multitask, two things happen:
1. We get less done.
2. The quality of what we do is lower.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Multitasking, a term cribbed from computers, is an information age creed that, while almost universally sworn by, is more rooted in blind faith than fact. It’s the wellspring of office gaffes, as well as the stock answer to how we do more with less when in fact we’re usually doing less with more. What now passes for multitasking was once called not paying attention.

So… I guess the fact that I’m a habitual multi-tasker means that I’m not really paying attention… I’m not sure how to respond. I feel like I’m productive – people are always surprised that I can manage as much as I can – so is what I’m doing something other than traditional multi-tasking?

Something to think about as I write this post and watch Law & Order … which I’m going to give my attention to now :)

20 Responses so far.

  1. Bryan says:

    Given this evidence, when do you think potential employers will abandon requiring multi-tasking in job postings?

  2. Nicole says:

    hehe – Never :)

  3. Bryan says:

    Given this evidence, when do you think potential employers will abandon requiring multi-tasking in job postings?

  4. I think the question is whether you’re doing your best work–or, perhaps, whether you set aside “unitasking” periods for cases where focus really does lead to better results.

    I can’t say what the answer is in your case. I know, without any doubt, what it is in my case–and most studies (as you’ve noted) seem to suggest that most people do their best work–on those tasks where focus means something–when they don’t multitask.

    Gotta admit, I really wouldn’t want a surgeon to be participating in a chat session or checking email while I’m under the knife, and I wouldn’t expect a concert pianist to be browsing Bloglines during a concerto. Those may be extreme cases, to be sure–and there are lots of daily cases where 100% focus won’t make much difference. For me, “serious writing” requires focus, as did serious systems analysis and programming. Your mileage (and your tasks!) may vary.

  5. I think the question is whether you’re doing your best work–or, perhaps, whether you set aside “unitasking” periods for cases where focus really does lead to better results.

    I can’t say what the answer is in your case. I know, without any doubt, what it is in my case–and most studies (as you’ve noted) seem to suggest that most people do their best work–on those tasks where focus means something–when they don’t multitask.

    Gotta admit, I really wouldn’t want a surgeon to be participating in a chat session or checking email while I’m under the knife, and I wouldn’t expect a concert pianist to be browsing Bloglines during a concerto. Those may be extreme cases, to be sure–and there are lots of daily cases where 100% focus won’t make much difference. For me, “serious writing” requires focus, as did serious systems analysis and programming. Your mileage (and your tasks!) may vary.

  6. Nicole says:

    Hehe :) I love the surgeon example. You are right – there are times when I do focus – when I have to to focus on one task.

  7. Nicole says:

    Hehe :) I love the surgeon example. You are right – there are times when I do focus – when I have to to focus on one task.

  8. Lori Reed says:

    I first read about this in Getting Things Done and I’m convinced it’s true. But it’s rare I get a chance to work uninterrupted–which is another reason why I am a huge advocate for telecommuting. I can get more work done at home in a few hours than I get done at work all day.

  9. And there it is. I think the idea that people should never multitask is silly–and implausible, even at work (with some exceptions). Much of the time, “doing your best work” for that period of time *requires* CPA or multitasking, because “being there” for a variety of interrupt-driven purposes is what’s happening.

    The issue, I think, is whether multitasking is always preferable–whether you can indeed do your best work under CPA conditions. So far, the answer I’m getting from experienced multitaskers is the same as yours: No–there are times when you focus.

    Frankly, the (few) writers I’ve seen who seem to claim that CPA/multitasking is always preferable don’t usually impress me as proving their point: It almost always seems that they’re intelligent enough to write more lucidly if they weren’t multitasking. But I think for most of us, no matter what generation, it’s a matter of degree. Sometimes we do (and should) multitask; sometimes we don’t. Our *preferences* may be different.

  10. Lori Reed says:

    I first read about this in Getting Things Done and I’m convinced it’s true. But it’s rare I get a chance to work uninterrupted–which is another reason why I am a huge advocate for telecommuting. I can get more work done at home in a few hours than I get done at work all day.

  11. And there it is. I think the idea that people should never multitask is silly–and implausible, even at work (with some exceptions). Much of the time, “doing your best work” for that period of time *requires* CPA or multitasking, because “being there” for a variety of interrupt-driven purposes is what’s happening.

    The issue, I think, is whether multitasking is always preferable–whether you can indeed do your best work under CPA conditions. So far, the answer I’m getting from experienced multitaskers is the same as yours: No–there are times when you focus.

    Frankly, the (few) writers I’ve seen who seem to claim that CPA/multitasking is always preferable don’t usually impress me as proving their point: It almost always seems that they’re intelligent enough to write more lucidly if they weren’t multitasking. But I think for most of us, no matter what generation, it’s a matter of degree. Sometimes we do (and should) multitask; sometimes we don’t. Our *preferences* may be different.

  12. Nicole says:

    Lori – I can’t work at home – there are way too many things to do at home :) Clean, let the dog out, watch the tv, do the laundry … etc!

  13. Nicole says:

    Lori – I can’t work at home – there are way too many things to do at home :) Clean, let the dog out, watch the tv, do the laundry … etc!

  14. Simon says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m coming to agree with Walt. And I’ve spent the past 10-20 years as a chronic multitasker. It became evident that I really do perform better when I’m unitasking – I’m thinking specifically of playing online poker: I was a losing player because I’d play 2-3 games at the same time and be surfing the web, etc. Then I noticed I played much better when the stakes were higher – because I played one game and concentrated on it. Anyone who considers multi-tasking better is welcome to play me heads-up, any time ;-)

    I also realised that multitasking on web surfing and watching sport meant I actually missed most of what happened in the game, even though I thought I was paying attention.

    Yeah, it’s all anecdotal, and sure there are times when the ability to multitask is valuable, but perhaps not all the time.

  15. Simon says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m coming to agree with Walt. And I’ve spent the past 10-20 years as a chronic multitasker. It became evident that I really do perform better when I’m unitasking – I’m thinking specifically of playing online poker: I was a losing player because I’d play 2-3 games at the same time and be surfing the web, etc. Then I noticed I played much better when the stakes were higher – because I played one game and concentrated on it. Anyone who considers multi-tasking better is welcome to play me heads-up, any time ;-)

    I also realised that multitasking on web surfing and watching sport meant I actually missed most of what happened in the game, even though I thought I was paying attention.

    Yeah, it’s all anecdotal, and sure there are times when the ability to multitask is valuable, but perhaps not all the time.

  16. Jesse says:

    When it comes to writing code, I can attest to the assertion that it can take 15 minutes to get back into the flow of it after being interrupted. Good professional programming is a very focus-oriented task that requires the coder to get immersed in the code, particularly when you are working on a particularly difficult problem.

    Back when I was a full-time professional programmer, my colleagues and I would often email each other questions and such, even if we were sitting next to each other. That way the person receiving the email could look at it when (s)he had a mental break, instead of being interrupted by a live person. It sounds goofy, but it really made a difference in productivity.

    - Jesse

  17. Nicole says:

    It doesn’t sound goofy – we’d do the same thing at Jenkins – we used the blog on the Intranet, email and IM to communicate even though we could talk – it also meant that there was a written record of things ;)

  18. Jesse says:

    When it comes to writing code, I can attest to the assertion that it can take 15 minutes to get back into the flow of it after being interrupted. Good professional programming is a very focus-oriented task that requires the coder to get immersed in the code, particularly when you are working on a particularly difficult problem.

    Back when I was a full-time professional programmer, my colleagues and I would often email each other questions and such, even if we were sitting next to each other. That way the person receiving the email could look at it when (s)he had a mental break, instead of being interrupted by a live person. It sounds goofy, but it really made a difference in productivity.

    – Jesse

  19. Nicole says:

    It doesn’t sound goofy – we’d do the same thing at Jenkins – we used the blog on the Intranet, email and IM to communicate even though we could talk – it also meant that there was a written record of things ;)


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