November 19, 2008

In Defense of Multitasking

is-multitasking-evil

Question: Are you the kind of person who works on more than one thing at a time? If so, you’re a multitasker, and depending on who you talk to, you may get the sense that you should feel guilty for a bad habit.

It’s hard to find defenders of multitasking these days. I asked about it on Twitter last week and heard mostly negative comments. “Multitasking is a myth… it slows down your productivity… drains your focus” and so on. It all leads me to wonder —

Am I the only one who enjoys multitasking? Should I feel guilty for doing a lot of things at the same time?

The interwebs are bursting with multitasking critiques. Most of these entries contain a similar argument: when we try to multitask, we’re not able to focus on more than one thing at once, so we continually shift back and forth between different tasks. Every time we switch between tasks, we lose the time it takes us to change gears and refocus. Then, before we get fully immersed in the new task, another distraction comes along to pull us somewhere else.

How We Work

The problem is that multitasking is simply how many of us have shifted our styles of life and work over the past decade. There may indeed be some negative consequences as a result, but I think there are also benefits. Instead of reverting to a practice of “one thing, one time,” perhaps it’s better to find a way to adapt to changing technology and lifestyle patterns.

You can always turn off the PDA or close down the browser, right? If you can’t, that’s a self-discipline problem, not the fault of multitasking. I confess to having that problem from time to time, but I also tend to get a lot done over the course of an average day.

I read a great book recently called The Power of Full Engagement. In some ways, it was another case against multitasking, but the authors spent much more time presenting an alternative model of work. The model highlights energy management instead of time management, something which I’ve always found to be an anomaly. (You know, how we can’t manage time.)

By focusing more on our energy (how we feel, what we’re capable of at any given time, and so on), we can schedule projects and tasks according to our own individual capacities.

Multitasking Tips

If you’re like me and enjoy keeping a lot of balls in the air, perhaps some of these tips can help:

  • Every day select two “most important” goals. These goals should become more important than all the other work you like to do. You can still multitask, but make sure these two things get done even if nothing else does
  • Make technology serve you instead of the other way around – if you struggle with learning a new tool, give up on the struggle (maybe the tool is not right for you)
  • Use multiple monitors – I do most work on my laptop, but I also have my desktop running at the same time. I keep mind-maps and another browser window open on the second monitor
  • The project and task list are the compass points for progress. Work off these documents, not all the other inputs that come your way. You can have Twitter or Gmail going, but keep the list in front of you too
  • Add several breaks into your schedule. I stop for 10 minutes every hour and do something completely unrelated to work. I read magazines, go in another room, walk around, etc.
Multitasking with Beer and Phone

Maybe It’s Just Me…

How do you like to work? Are you against multitasking? Do you think it hurts or hinders your productivity? Feel free to tell me I’m wrong…

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For More Reading (External Links)

Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again
I Don’t Multitask
LGE Performance Institute
The Art of Multitasking (Fast Company)

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Image of Mac Multitasking by WilliamHartz
Who Says Men Can’t Multitask? Image by SM

Comment on this article

25 Responses to “In Defense of Multitasking”

  1. The fact that you lose the time whenever you change gears to work on something different is still there. It is especially apparent when you are doing tasks that really require focus.

    With that said, it is possible to do things in parallel, but just not at the same time. For example, with your two most important goals idea you could work on one for a half hour and then work on the other for a half hour and keep switching back and forth over time. That’s not multitasking, that’s working on one thing at a time.

    The problem is that when we have all these distractions such as email or twitter available and we feel that we have to read/respond to them immediately, the most distracting thing becomes the most important rather than the most important thing being the most important.

  2. November 19, 2008

    ALinRussia

    I have the ability and drive to concentrate on a single task for a long period of time – so long as part of my brain is distracted by something else. It’s not usually something else productive, but it can be. I have found that unless I have a “multi-tasked day,” that is, plan to do many different things in one day, I get bored very quickly and am unable to concentrate on my single task. Knowing that I’m going to be switching gears excites me and helps me to concentrate more fully on the task at hand.

    I guess for me it’s kind of like working out my muscles: I can work a particular set harder if I know I’m going to be switching to another set soon.

  3. I’m afraid I agree that multi-tasking is inefficient. Having said that, I too have a list with many projects on it. I find I must devote about an hour to one at a time. I can not listen to a CD and read an article at the same time.

    I take notes by hand as I read. This gives time for your mind to process and come up with some of my best ideas, a different way to use the information or an opposite view of the authors take. The same with brainstorming, without deep focus you never get to the unique solutions.

    Taking a short break between tasks helps to change gears in the mind for the next task. Great article to think about.

  4. For me, multitasking becomes inefficient because I’m usually distracting myself from the one thing I really want to get done without actually having to do it. I’ve found that I’m most efficient when I give myself a deadline for whatever task needs to be completed, and then I trick myself into finishing it by breaking it into 15 minute breaks. This works for anything–writing a paper, filing, laundry. I’ll spend 15 minutes on one project (or one aspect of a project) and move onto something else specific for 15 minutes, and it snowballs from there. Because I’m deadline oriented, the smaller blocks of time force me to be way more productive without losing motivation. I guess this isn’t technically multitasking, but I’m able to complete multiple tasks in the time I would usually while away thinking about everything I need to do.

  5. Chris,
    Interesting question.

    For an artist, it’s all about getting into “the zone”, but the length of time that is at any given time varies. Some times that depends on external demands, sometimes internal ones. When I am on one of those short time frames, I have multiple things set up and am doing some of each thing. Kind of like circuit training in a gym. I don’t like it as much, I prefer immersion, but I still get to move several priority things forward while gradually lengthening the time of focus on that main piece of work.

    So I do both. One at a time, which I like. And several priority things in circuit, which is the mode I am in right now. I think it’s important to use whichever works at the time. Systems are tools. Not good or bad in themselves , but in how you use them.

    And of course it depends on which side of the brain is in gear, left or right …aren’t you glad you asked? Kind of like saying . It depends. LOL

  6. I think Janice really nailed it – of course, I am an artist as well so maybe that is why her explanation made so much sense to me. :)

    I recently asked a friend (who by the way is extremely productive in his work habits) what he thought of the Getting Things Done (GTD) philosophy. His response? With a slight smile:

    “It’s a cult.”

    I kind of agree in some ways. Folks really can become religious about it, and understandably so. I use some of the principles of GTD when I’m nearing the endgame before a deadline, but for the most part I am an inherent multitasker. I think it’s somewhat unrealistic to think we’re not all multitaskers to one degree or another – I know for me, my brain has a thousand things flurrying around at any given moment, waiting for me to snatch a handful of ideas out of the air and do something with them.

    Makes it pretty loud in my head at times.

    For me, running is a good example. When I run, I can only multitask 3 things: running, focus on breathing, and cognitive focus on one other thought process. I often find clarity that way – but I’m still multitasking. :)

  7. I’m thinking that most of those reading this and agreeing with the negative side of multi-tasking are thinking in terms of office/business type scenarios.
    I spent years dancing and training dancers – if you can’t multi-task you’re basically toast. When you dance or do anything athletic you are constantly monitoring what came before, what are we doing now and what comes next – at the same time you have muscle memory that has to kick in to make sure “all of that” happens in correct form. Without the ability to mult-task their wouldn’t be amazing feats of athletics or dance or gymnastics or ice skating – I could go on but I won’t. And from what I’ve observed of my students who were exceptional at this as children, they have gone on to transpose this ability to law, science, medicine and education and have done so exceptional well.
    And as for just being a parent – I think most of you would have been dropped on your head multiple times if it wasn’t for the fact that your mothers had outstanding multi-tasking skill. So – I’m going to have to be in the pro group – mostly all alone – on this. Maybe I’m weird but my ability to focus isn’t limited to one thing at a time – but again I’ve danced for over 45 years so I’ve had lots of practice:)

  8. My work habit depends on what it is I am doing. If I’m programming, something which is mind intensive as well as something I enjoy very much, I will often work straight for 3-4 hours without a break. But if I’m studying for class or doing homework breaks every hours or two are the norm.

  9. While I’m performing relatively “brainless” tasks, I’m all about multitasking. It’s the way I’m wired. My wife on the other hand, as do focus much more in order to get things done. I know in my professional career, I run circles around most of the other folks I work with and I’m working full-time, running 2 businesses on the side, and delivering pizzas 3 nights a week (on top of being a husband, dad, and active in my church).

  10. I think the backlash against multi-tasking is really passive aggression against technology. As people feel that the increase in technology has increased the complexity of their lives and increased their workday, not decreased it, anyone taking advantage of technology is somehow doing something wrong.

    I myself am a huge multitasker, doing everything “wrong” (if you listen to the productivity gurus). I check E-Mail while I’m on the phone, I interrupt reading a business plan halfway through to check my to do list for the day, etc. etc.

    To your point Chris, I find it actually energizes me whereas spending an hour totally focused on one task is what drains me. I think we would be well served focusing on results and deliverable rather than how people get there.

  11. The critiques of multi-tasking are typically valid, but not all the time. The critiques are predicated on the notion that focus is required of all tasks. Personally I have lots of tasks that don’t require my entire focus.

    I don’t multi-task all the time, but sometimes like the other readers say, it energizes me to be juggling a bit. I suspect that the energizing effect comes from using all your mental muscles, rather than just the ones that you would use for the singular task at hand. Simplistically, if you are doing solely right brained activities, you leave the left brain twiddling its thumbs. Getting them balanced and humming at a decent efficiency is great AND productive.

  12. I think it’s just one of those things where you need to be doing it smartly, in my work often if I’m not doing more than one thing I would get torn a new one. There is nothing wrong with multitasking if you work smart.

  13. Hey guys, great discussion! Thanks to those of you who have added points or even come down on the side of being anti-multitask. No problem.

    It’s been a busy day, but I read all comments — feel free to keep posting them if you have something to say.

  14. There seems to be two definitions of multitasking – switching rapidly between things and actually doing more than one thing at a time. I don’t find the first helpful, but the second is. I focus best on things when my brain is fully engaged. During college I could read a textbook for about 5-10 minutes before my mind wandered….unless I knit while I read. Then I could go for hours. I extended this to lectures where I could get away with it as well. When I engage that other part of my brain with something, it’s not wandering off and distracting me.

  15. Hmmm… I am probably closer to an “anti-multi-tasker” than most who have commented. That being said, I work with a second monitor, browser open generally, a chat window open, etc. much of the time.

    There are times, however, that a different type of focus is required. I am certain we are far less productive on focus-required work (for me, programming or writing), with distractions. There are times, I close everything but that “one thing” that I am working on.

    When I had employees, I saw much the same thing – a need to turn off all other stimulus during key moments.

    I turn my phone on silence (not vibrate) and turn it over so I don’t see any incoming messages or calls.

    I actually physically disconnect from the Internet (turn off my wireless).

    Then I set a goal that requires me to complete “x” amount of time/work on the tasks at hand before “re-connecting”.

    That allows me to get “in the zone” – which as a writer, Chris, you understand is an almost euphoric, hyper-focused, tunnel-vision trance. It feels great and is highly productive.

    I find having multiple tasks, stimulus, i/o available (second monitor, email, chat) can be highly productive when compiling ideas.

    FYI: I should be on a focus project right now but I’ve allowed you to distract me!!! :/

  16. I am the kind that loves keeping balls in the air. Why? Because I can. Many people just plain don’t do well with this. It’s difficult for them, and they really just don’t do justice to the tasks they are trying to perform. That is really okay. We all need to work within our abilities and find the things that work for us.

    Multitasking works for me. It frees me up to do things that otherwise I wouldn’t have time for. It’s like solving a puzzle sometimes also (figuring out how to do multiple things well, and fast). I make the impossible look easy, which some people just use to place more demands on you, so I’ve learned to gently remind them of what I do or just say no.

    It’s not for everyone, but for those of us that can. It’s a lot of fun and just makes more time for doing the things we love.

  17. I’m a big multi-tasker. I run a business and unschool my kid at the same time, so I have to be able to stop one task, tend to the kid, and pick up my work right where I left off. It’s vital to my mental well-being – and his! If I weren’t able to multi-task, I’d constantly be telling my boy he has to wait til I finish this thing, and he’d get impatient and we’d lose the moment.

    I was a preschool teacher for years, too, which is another environment where multi-tasking saves your sanity. (:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m checking into that book, and I greatly appreciate your tips. They’ll really come in handy for me in the new year when my wife starts working from home full-time and I’m managing her, the company, the cats, the kid, and the household all at once. (;

  18. i am a total multitasker- even now im watching tv and doing work online

  19. I wonder, Chris, if you’re not actually trying to create an alternate definition of multi-tasking, when in fact a different word might be better. I don’t claim to know quite what that word is (yet), but that’s what I’ve been thinking since I read this post on Wednesday.

    The sort of multi-tasking that incurs the ire of self-help/organization gurus (self-proclaimed or actual) is not – so far as I can tell – the same sort of multi-tasking you describe in this post. There’s a difference between having multiple balls in the air versus the ADD-like frenetic “must-always-be-in-motion” kind of multi-tasking which, for 99% of folks is genuinely counter-productive.

    Perhaps your sort of multi-tasking is actually more like your philosophy of work … multiple streams of income (read: activity) each of which contributes to a larger, unified whole. If that thought is accurate, then perhaps you’re more of a “multi-streamer” than a “multi-tasker.”

    What do you think?

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  21. Christy,
    I think you are on to something and ‘multi-streaming’ is a good word for it. It’s more of a controlled version of multitasking.

  22. I multitask to keep my energy level constant (high). If I’m loading up some file or webpage or application and it’s slow, I don’t like to just sit there staring and waiting.

  23. Multi-tasking is highly inefficient but sometimes needed and also a highly valued skill in many workplaces. For example, if you are an air traffic controller, your job depends on this ability. If you are raising twins at home…your sanity depends on your ability to multi-task.

    However, I also believe that the great things in life, that is to say, the things that we will look back on and be proud of…are the things that we truly appreciated, enjoyed and created…these are things that require a great degree of focus and dedication. Many cultural traditions focus on meditation as a tool for focusing the mind. Thousands of years ago scattered thoughts were a problem in the human condition and different rituals and approaches were devised to counter act this (meditation/yoga being just one), and that hasn’t changed in modern times.

    For the vast majority of us, especially those of us that are reading and writing blogs with great veracity, we would do ourselves a favor by training our brains to do less parallel processing.

    I wrote about this topic on my blog a while back.

    Ravi

  24. November 24, 2008

    DiscoveredJoys

    I suspect that there are (to oversimplify) two types of multitasking – ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

    The ‘good’ one is straightforward – you have many tasks do, you are practised at all of them, and each task can be done in small increments. Often these tasks are presented to you at random times. When I was a working stiff I could chair a conference call, take notes, read appropriate emails and and fire off IM chats with my people at the same time. Customers were impressed that within 30 seconds of the call ending the notes – and more importantly action points – were emailed out to all on the conference call. During the call I was ‘in the zone’, but importantly all of the skills I needed were well practised.

    The ‘bad’ type is where you snatch up one distracting task to put off dealing with another less appealing task. Got a big report to write, well… let me check my email, go for a coffee, phone the boss, pick up the report, read my email again, decide to clean my monitor screen…. this is the sort of multitasking that productivity gurus rage against.

    And sometimes total focus is needed on a single task no matter how skilled you are. If the task is complicated and has many competeing elements, or you are using new skills, then you need the tight focus.

    Although it is not an exact analogy, I think your brain has a ‘maximum bandwidth’ for conscious tasks. In ‘good’ multitasking your brain has enough bandwidth to switch easily between tasks because much of the learned skills are being conducted unconsciously. Similarly, very demanding tasks require all your bandwidth, and you suffer when distractions snatch bandwidth away. You can be ‘in the zone’ in either case.

    In ‘bad’ multitasking you are allowing yourself to be distracted and you are probably not using anything like your full capacity – and that is why the One Task Gurus are critical.

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