Multi-task No More

July 29, 2007

What the following statement lacks in eloquence it makes up for in truth: Multi-tasking sucks.

For me, multi-tasking is equivalent to having many projects perpetually in various states of completion, none of which are actually complete. In today’s hectic world, what we used to refer to as a disorder known as ADD is now standard operating procedure. Most of us never really focus on anything. Right now, I’m not even focusing on this post. I’m looking out the window at 2 gentlemen pushing a large rear-projection TV on wheels down my street. And those guys aren’t focusing on what they’re doing, either. One of them is smoking a cigarette and the other is having a conversation on his cell phone. They’re multi-tasking. As soon as the guy finishes his cigarette, he’ll be able to mark “Smoke cigarette” off his To-Do list. How satisfying that’ll be for him! And I can only assume that the task of “Smoke cigarette” is right next to tasks such as “Eat trans fat” and “Drive too fast” under a project titled “Kill self”. Ok, time to refocus. . .

So why does multi-tasking suck?

  1. Task switching is bad. Joel Spolsky, of Joel on Software and in a book by the same name, explains that because task switches require overhead, performing tasks sequentially one after another will always yield higher productivity than tasks performed concurrently.

    In fact, the real lesson from all this is that you should never let people work on more than one thing at once. Make sure they know what it is. Good managers see their responsibility as removing obstacles so that people can focus on one thing and really get it done.

    While Spolsky is referring specifically to programmers and management in his article, his concepts directly translate to your personal life. Believe it. If something must get done, don’t try to add it to what you’re already doing. Give it the time it deserves. Give it the focus it deserves.

  2. Multi-tasking = multi-distracting. Checking email while you’re working? Helping co-workers while trying to make headway on a project? I’ve found that email, co-workers, the boss – pretty much any sort of interruption – can be paralysis while I’m at the office and if I expect to get much done, I’ve got to learn to deal with a steady in-flux of demands for attention.
  3. Merlin Mann of 43folders asserts that multi-tasking is a myth and also advocates processing your email once an hour and keeping a very simple system for doing so. His recent talk at Google comes highly recommended.

    While not everyone can do this, I’ve started scheduling blocks of my calendar for actual development. Since my job is development, I know that sounds tantamount to scheduling myself to work while I’m at work. Kinda dumb, right? However, the simple process of scheduling that time for development projects and receiving associated reminders via Outlook that essentially say, “hey! it’s time to work now”, is making a positive difference in my workday.

Speaking of getting things done, David Allen’s GTD system (and its variations) are worth looking into. No, I haven’t read the book, but it’s on my list. From what I’ve read around the ‘net, I’ve begun doing something similar to Allen’s GTD.

So yeah. Stop multi-tasking and find something to do!


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