Blog


Multitasking

It won’t come as a surprise to those who know me that I don’t multitask. Not that I can’t do what we call multitasking. No, I refuse to multitask.

Looking back, it is obvious now that my mind was refusing to multitask long before I decided to do it consciously. I would lose thoughts when interrupted. I would find myself shifting focus to tasks I would rather do, only to do no tasks well. I would become angry or frustrated with interruptions.

There are studies that show NO ONE truly multitasks, and that trying to multitask on too many things is detrimental to productivity (see here and here, for example). Want to see for yourself? Try this simple test suggested by Dr. Nancy Napier.

What are we really doing?

We task-switch. A computer that is “multitasking” is really switching very quickly between the many programs it is running, giving the illusion that all of them are working simultaneously. Each program has its own context – the extra stuff about the program, like memory and other resources – that the program needs. When the computer switches between programs, it needs to do something to save the context, too. So, it shuffles the context to a holding area, moves the context needed for the now-current program into the main processing area, and carries on. processors have been designed to efficiently hold onto the context of many programs. Even with these designs, when the holding area gets full, and it starts to do inefficient tricks to hold onto all of the context for all of the programs.

This may sound like how you feel when you are trying to keep too many tasks afloat through “multitasking”. When returning to a task, have you ever asked yourself, “Now, where was I before I was interrupted”? That’s your brain trying to reload the context into your main processing area.

Sounds good in theory…

But wait – interruptions are a part of modern living and the modern workday, right? After all, don’t we need to do things for our customers, boss, spouse, kids? Well, yes … and no. Saying that I refuse to multitask is a bit untrue, since I still switch between tasks. However, I do what I can to consciously remove unnecessary multitasking.

Have you ever been interrupted by someone walking into the room, and as you are talking with them, find that your thoughts switch between the person and whatever you were doing before the interruption? You are doing this to keep the context of your prior work close to the main processing area.

As an alternative, try this: Pause, and ask the person to wait a moment while you pack away your thoughts, and then give them your full attention. Most people get it, as long as you don’t appear to be intentionally making the wait as “punishment” for interrupting.

Try also to remove unnecessary multitasking. How many times has that email you looked at while in a meeting been important? Ever have to stop short in traffic as you look up from a text? Your colleagues and customers deserve your full attention, and your family and friends want to see you tomorrow. Put your phone down, turn off your email, and silence text notifications when you need to focus.