Multi-Tasking and its Discontents

Research has shown that multi-taskers are more easily distracted, have trouble learning, and are less productive. There’s even a new book on the subject whose title makes the thesis pretty clear: The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done.

Still, there are many who pride themselves on their ability to multitask and it seems to become more difficult to simply do one thing at a time. Lately I’ve been struggling to really pay attention to each task at hand. This is really really hard.

So let me define the problem by listing different kinds of multitasking behavior and their possible roots and solutions:

Self-distraction
There’s always the opportunity to find something else to pay attention to. Reading email, checking Facebook or Twitter, doing some “research” on the web. These are all ways of distracting oneself. This is also one of the easiest kinds of multi-tasking to stop, since it’s so clearly unnecessary.
Performing minor tasks while waiting for something else to happen.
Cause: Impatience.
Could be checking email, reading feeds, general web surfing while waiting for an application to load, while on hold on phone, etc. This kind of behavior seems harmless enough since it’s just filling time that would otherwise be wasted. Still, it requires shifting of focus and therefore has some cognitive cost. I’m trying to simply wait in these situations and it feels pretty good just doing nothing, staying focused on the task at hand even if I’m not doing anything about it in the moment.
Trying to listen and do something else at the same time.
Cause: Boredom
This is a major reason why meetings take more time and accomplish less than they should. Everybody is sitting at the meeting while working on their laptop or participating on the phone while doing who knows what. I wonder whether this would happen if everybody were truly interested in what was being said. Here’s an idea: if somebody show’s up to a meeting and spends the whole time on their laptop then they probably didn’t need to be invited to the meeting in the first place.
Interruptions
Cause: Other people
You’re working on something on your computer and then the phone rings, you pick it up talk for a minute, get back to work, then somebody taps you on the shoulder to ask you a question, which you answer then back to work, then you get an IM, etc. etc. etc. This kind of multitasking is especially difficult to curb since doing so requires changing other people’s expectations of your availability.

I’ve gone some way here in identifying the problem. Now the next step is to come up with some workable solutions.

1 Comment »

  1. Staying Focused in a Scattered World Said,

    September 10, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    [...] last post discussed the evils of multi-tasking; today I came across an article on the related probem of [...]

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