Multitasking is Bad

Jason Garfield executing juggling moves

Jason Garfield executing juggling moves

Yes, you read correctly: multitasking is bad.

I’m not saying that being able to “multitask” is a bad thing – of course not – we all need to be able to switch our focus to handle urgent and important tasks.  What I am saying is that multi-tasking is generally a bad thing.

We live in a time where an overabundance of information competes for our attention: emails, todo lists, instant messaging, desk phones, cell phones, iPods, spam, YouTube, Digg, IM, Twitter… the list goes on-and-on.

When humans are focused they can do amazing things.  Take the juggler above, or an aircraft pilot or for that matter anyone doing a serious piece of work.  Eliminating distractions permits your brain to switch into “R-mode” – your most creative state. That’s when the real pay-off work gets done: strategic plans, works of art, new designs, great software.

However, when too many things compete for our full attention then nothing gets done well.  Think of your computer when it’s downloading a file, doing a virus scan and  searching you filesystem – it’s grindingly slow.  Your brain is the same:  The L-mode of your brain is switching from one task to the next, not really completing any one thing.  Meanwhile, your R-mode brain is virtually shut down, eliminating your chance of getting anything really important done.  In fact studies have found that multitasking can cost you 20 to 40 percent of your productivity.

So what can be done to help us to stay on task?  Here are a few suggestions from Pragmatic Thinking and Learning by Andy Hunt (The Pragmatic Programmers, 2008), plus a sampling of tools I’ve found to be helpful:

Work on what’s important

The first you need to do is decide what’s important:

  1. Make a ToDo list – no one – and I mean no one – should try to keep a list of things to do in their head.  It causes stress and you will “drop the ball” on something.
  2. Prioritize your list: Use Stephen Covey’s principle of putting first things first: A-Tasks: Important/Urgent; B-Tasks: Important/Not Urgent; C-Tasks: Urgent/Not important (try to stop doing these things); Not urgent/Not important (definitely stop doing these things!).  I use Ryan Lowe’s Lighterest as an easy way to sort my tasks into buckets.  Then I use the online CEO by Geoffrey Grosenbach to help me to make sure I’m working on the right things.  If you don’t like those tools there are lots of other free list managers out there that will work for you.  Even a notebook and pen is better than nothing.
  3. Eat a frog everyday – By “eating a frog” I mean get one task out of the way that’s important but simply something you don’t want to do.  These are the tasks that result in procrastination. It could be paying that bill, making a telephone call you’ve been putting off; only you know what it is.  And if there’s more than one frog, start with the biggest.

Optimize your current context

Given that humans are not particularly good at multitasking it’s important that we have methods at our disposal to help us stay on task:

  1. Simplify your user interface – it’s true: a clean desk does help you concentrate better.  A clean desk removes all the little ugly things that are going to distract you.  The same goes for your desktop computer: shut down or minimize all the software and web apps that might distract you: Twitter, rss feeds and so on.  If you’ve got a Mac use OS X Spaces to organize the tasks by types of work.  For example, if your doing a communications based task then Email, ToDo list, calandar, Twitter are probably the right mix of apps; if you working on a presentation then likely PowerPoint and a browser window (for reseach) and perhaps Excel would be the right combination of apps.
  2. Get a second monitor – Having a second (or even a third) computer monitor means you to keep task-related items in context; you can then “spread out” your work and you’ll also spend less time searching for things.
  3. Cut down on email – First of all, shut off that annoying “you’ve got mail” announcement in whatever client you’re using.  Second, know and understand the following “truth”: send less email and you shall receive less email.  You know it’s true.  Have you ever gone on vacation to find you’re inbox cluttered with hundreds of emails only to find out that most of them have already been dealt with? Sure you have.  I’m not suggesting you ignore people – just understand what’s truly urgent and important – the rest can wait.
  4. When necessary, let others know when you’re busy –  If you work in an office then close the door.  If you’re a teleworker set your presence indicator (i.e. google mail, Communicator etc.) to “do not disturb”.  This is important if you get a lot of interruptions and you need to get something important done, but let your staff or coworkers know why you’re asking them not to disturb you.

In this day and age of the Internet, self-managing teams, freelancing and teleworking it’s more important then ever to learn to how to manage your time effectively.  And like any other skill, this is one you will need to hone to fine point.

Now, close this browser window and get to work on that “next big thing”.

-Chris

Update: for an idea of who a prolific blogger stays on task take a look at this post from John Nunemaker.  Note the clean desk, simple s/w setup and look for his comment on maintaining a TODO list.

What techniques to you use to stay on task?

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