Why Multitasking is a Waste of Time

You often hear people extolling the virtues of multitasking: you get more done, It’s the way of the future.

Balls.

Multitasking is great if you want to fill your time doing a lots of things not very well, over a long period of time. Sure you can: flicking between checking your email, Twittering, writing a report, trying a new web app and chatting on Facebook. Are you busy? Probably. Are you productive? Probably not.

As I see it, there are two key problems here:

  1. Doing non essential tasks
    Due to procrastination and self-distraction you are putting off certain tasks, by doing everything else but, the task you are supposed to be doing.
  2. Task switching
    The other often overlooked issue is that of task switching — moving between one task and another. This is the issue I want to draw your attention to in this post.

Task switching

Your conscious mind effectively works like a single thread processor. We do things best in a linear fashion. One thing followed by another. Multitasking is like trying to make yourself a multithread processor. Unfortunately, evolution hasn’t caught up yet, so you are stuck with your good old fashioned single thread brain. Sure you can sort of do multitasking, but it’s a bit of a hack and doesn’t really work.

The problem with multitasking is you keep changing backwards and forwards from one thing to another. This means you need to switch your thoughts from one task to another repeatedly, and then repeatedly having to recall all the pertinent information about each task, before you actually do the task itself. This all takes time.
When you multitask you are effectively (to put it in computer terms), opening a file, doing something with it, closing it, opening another file, doing something with it, closing it and opening the previous one again, doing something with it, closing it again etc, etc. This is obviously inefficient. Infact depending on how often you switch between tasks. You can waste 40% plus of your productive time just in task switching!

Could do better

There is also one more good reason not to do it: quality. It has been proven that, trying to do more than one thing at a time generally leads to a poorer performance of each task, compared with doing each task separately.

Of course, having said all that; it is not always possible to work on things in a linear manner, but generally, if you want to get more things done and to a higher standard: stop multitasking. TTFN.

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  • http://www.magain.com/ mattymcg

    I was going to write a smart alec response to this, but I got distracted by something…

  • Unomi

    Joel Spolsky wrote something similar back in….. 2001?

    http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000022.html

    But it’s still true.

    - Unomi -

  • http://www.mikeborozdin.com/ Mike Borozdin

    Exactly! Even if you’re just Twittering, having a chat on Facebook and MSN, it’s still difficult and you often forget to reply to your pal on Facebook, while you are chatting with som other friend on MSN.

  • rome9t9

    I have suffered from multitasking a great deal. was trying to manage 4 blogs with graduation studies ( chemical engineering)..burnt up my grades in college..with li’l success in blogging world:(

  • pame651

    Multitasking is so overrated!!

  • krdr

    Not quite well. Buy using your own metaphor, it is mater of task scheduling. One thing is multi tasking, second thing is interrupts. You actually was talking about interrupts, not multitasking.

    On the contrary of your opinion, Toby, there’s studies that advocates switching from one task to other, as we loose concentration doing one, same, task. How many times we were doing something very well, then blow it away on the end, ‘cose we get tired and lost our focus?

    Good practice is to make pauses on some intervals (like 5min on every hour). After each pause, you switch on other task, or, during pause, you can “service” your interrupts.

    So, multitasking (and polling) is good, interrupts are bad.

  • Jorge Diaz Tambley

    Kathy Sierra also blogged about this:

    http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/03/multitasking_ma.html

    There’s a consensus about the evils of multitasking, buy we all do it (I write this while I wait for a document to print and listening to Jean-Luc Ponty)

  • C

    Agree.
    Multitasking is for managers.
    Single tasking is for team members.
    Multitasking = getting twice as much done in four times the time!!

  • Anonymous

    Err, you’re talking about context switching, not multi-tasking. Multi-tasking refers to concurrent activities, not time slicing between various activities as with context switching. For example, driving a car (requires hand-eye coordination) and talking to someone (not recommended!) at the same time is multi-tasking. Playing Wii Sports or Fit and calling a friend, feeding the baby, and cooking dinner, at the same time is *multi*-tasking. Task switching /= multi-tasking.

    Get it right!

  • jj

    While anecdotal evidence I have certainly tends to support what you say, and I personally work better with reasonable levels of focus, some neuroscience might suggest that perhaps if your brain grows up with it, maybe some level of multitasking is okay. Check out the book “welcome to your brain”- it covers this topic. Did you know first person shooters can increase your capacity to take in varying wide inputs?

    J

  • solaz

    Jeeze, thanks. I was just doing exactly this…

  • http://standardpixel.com standardpixel

    I agree with @krdr

    We are not computers and multi-tasking is simply not possible. We need to time-box our day to allocate a fair amount of focus time to each thing that we want to accomplish. This also will help in figuring out if we have taken on too much. If you can’t allocate time for it it may not be that important.

  • colorbycolor

    Multi tasking works-ask any mom.

    You just have to have your head on straight and not allow distractions. I say this as a designer and a mom of two (or three if you count the helpless husband). Just like in motherhood, you have to find your groove and go with it. I can cook dinner, answer emails, help with home work, listen to Dr. Phil and write a grocery list all at the same time with amazing accuracy so it is not that multi tasking does not work, it is that some people just don’t know how to multi task effectively.

  • http://www.calcResult.co.uk omnicity

    As with so many things, the truth lies in the degree to which you multi-task – if you swap tasks every minute or so, then you won’t get much done, but for most people, if you stick strictly to one task at a time, then occasionally that task will block, and you will be left twiddling your thumbs while you wait for what ever it is to complete.
    For me, the best thing is to have a good variety of tasks in your queue, so that you can fit an entire task into whatever window opens, before moving back. Equally, try to keep them at different stages, so that if one particular process cannot complete just now (this will vary greatly between different jobs) then another process won’t block in the same place.

  • KiwiJohn

    I can multitask. Just now I was concurrently (1) sitting in my chair, (2) drinking coffee, (3) reading an article on Sitepoint. Then I switched to writing a response, so I had to put my coffee cup down.

    The difference between multitasking and switching has already been pointed out, but I’ll reiterate: Multitasking is doing multiple things concurrently, whereas switching is changing between a group of tasks frequently and doing a little of each at a time.

    Examples:
    Multitasking: drinking coffee and reading an article
    Switching: drinking coffee and reading an article out loud

    The ability (and effectiveness) of multitasking really depends on the tasks you are performing and how skilled you are at them. For example, most drivers approaching an intersection will apply the brakes, switch on the turn indicator, change gears, check traffic and plot their route through the intersection all at the same time and do it so naturally that they don’t even think about the fact that they just performed five actions concurrently (multitasking), whereas a coder focused on a difficult algorithm may not even hear their wife call them for dinner.

    However, I believe Toby is really talking about switching. Again, the ability and effectiveness of switching is determined by the tasks and your ability to perform them. The most effective use of switching is when you do a second thing while waiting for a first thing to complete. By reducing the amount of time you spend doing nothing, you become more efficient. However, switching from something you are busy at in order to get busy at something else is inefficient. Unless the thing switched to has a higher priority than the first, in which case it should obviously be completed before returning to the first task.

    Effective switching example: Having multiple chats open and replying to one while waiting for a reply from another.

    Ineffective switching example: Having multiple emails open and writing a sentence at a time on each.

  • JV

    On a PC it’s easy to do, download a file, while writing a document.
    Install a program while answering email.

    Multitasking is being pushed on us by multitask OSs

  • optifocus

    hey.. i think multitasking is good at a times and bad sometimes. because with multitasking one cant concentrate on one work. like if you are working on a pc than sometimes it is fine. otherwise when you studying for exam and at the same time u cant watch tv or listen music. so according to me multitasking is good sometimes and also bad.

    Regards,
    Optifocus

    Optician
    IT Solutions

  • Rohbanian

    Thank you.
    It was my problem. Getting project from multi websites and working as a freelancer for many sources !
    Thanks again

    گروه هنر و برنامه نويسي مهرگان – طراحي وب سايت

  • GGGGG

    no one definitely can run away from multitasking, the world we live in is multitasked already, and thinking pattern is multitasked, cos you got so many things jostling for your time, be it a now, a sec, min, hour, day or centuries later, even with switching there is a relative level of multitasking cos you definitely can’t switch to something that isn’t already pending your memory for attention

    we sometimes do it well, sometimes not too well, guess the result tells us how far we have come with either the switching or the multitasking which ever way you all put it

    ciao

  • Anonymous

    It has been my experience that men are not good at multi-tasking. Women seem to be more capable at it. So it comes as no big surprise that the author of an article about multi-tasking being a waste of time is a male.

  • Ron

    Don’t multitask. Do one thing at a time, enjoy the task, celebrate the completion of the task and move on to the next task. This ensures accuracy and quality. You will be a happier and healthier person for it.

    Ron
    http://www.YourWritingDept.com

  • jack son

    hi

  • lww

    Spoken by someone who has no stress at all at work. I can compile a program, work a spreadsheet, answer a phone call and print that report for the boss who is standing at my desk at the same time. If I did them one at a time I’d be fired for loafing.