Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Myth of Multitasking

Multitasking is a hot topic in today's society. Some see it as a way to get more done. Others see it as a way to get nothing of substance done. I recently read The Myth of Multitasking by Dave Crenshaw. For the most part, the book argues against multitasking. The take-away for me was that multitasking is OK when one or both of the tasks require little effort or brain power. Listening to music in the background while working on something of substance is an example.



The whole idea of multitasking seems to me more a discussion of interruptions. It's not that we are literally doing two things at once. Instead, we are switching our attention from one task to the other with a great deal of wasted motion in between.

Time management literature has discussed interruptions for decades. The telephone and the drop-in visitor were seen as the two big sources. If those two things were the source of interruptions, then a skilled administrative assistant served as the gatekeeper for both. Now, we have the phone in our pocket that rings. We have e-mail that dings. We have the world-wide web as a source of diversion. There are no gatekeepers here. We must act as our own gatekeeper, often guarding against interrupting ourselves. Nothing suggests that pattern will change anytime soon.

As the demands on our time increase, we must look to focus, rather than multitasking, as the way to do more and do it faster. Whatever we do must receive our attention. Focus on what you are doing. Take that project as far as you can. Before moving to something else, two steps are critical:
  1. Decide exactly where you need to pick up with that project the next time. 
  2. Decide when you want to see a reminder about it again, and put it in your system. 
Now, you are free to move on to something else and give that task your undivided attention.

This idea of multitasking is explored in an  excellent article from The New Atlantis. The article, written by Christine Rosen, bears the same title as the book discussed here--The Myth of Multitasking. She begins with this this advice written by Lord Chesterfield to his son back in the 1740s:

“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time. This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”

An equally compelling article can be found in Time magazine's article "Staying Sharp: The Case for Doing One Thing at a Time" in which Suze Orman discusses her preference for focus.

We can do great things, but we cannot do everything at once. It's through focus, not multitasking, that we make it happen.

Are you a multitasker? What about a reformed multitasker? Under what conditions do you seem to be most productive?
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