Does Multitasking Kill Your Focus and Productivity?

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multitaskI like to think of myself as the master of multitasking. Realistically, I may not be a “master” per se, but I do it a lot, and it has become a standard part of my work process. Of course, just like everyone else, I sometimes try to do too much at one time, get overwhelmed and have to step back and regroup. But it’s a periodic and short-lived problem, and most of the time, I am multitasking away. I can’t imagine working differently.

But not everyone feels this way. In fact, there are numerous articles out there on multitasking and how it not only hurts productivity, but also can damage your health.

According to The Autumn of the Multitaskers in The Atlantic, multitasking dumbs us down, increases stress and ages us prematurely.

The American Psychological Association says that multitasking costs us extra time when we switch from one task to another, especially when the complexity of the tasks increases.

How NOT to Multitask – Work Simpler and Saner on the Zen Habits blog states that multitasking is less efficient, more complicated, and can be crazy.

While these articles certainly have merit and make valid points (I can’t deny that multitasking can be crazy sometimes!), I have to disagree that the concept of multitasking is a bad one. In fact, I will even go so far to say if you are goal-oriented, driven, and thrive on the challenge, then multitasking is the only way to work. And here’s why:

It’s necessary.

I’m busy. I work a lot, have a young and active family, and even like to take time off. The only way I can possibly maintain a level of productivity and do the things I want to do each day is by multitasking. I wouldn’t be able to accomplish much without it.

It stimulates energy.

When I am moving back and forth between projects, I get energized. It’s exciting and fun to be able to change my focus on a whim. And it prevents boredom.

It makes priorities realistic.

There may be no better reality check than realizing you are trying to do too much. When I hit that wall of overwhelm and overwork, it’s a clue that it’s time to revisit my priorities and to-do list and do some weeding.

It’s a feel-good way of life.

At the end of the day, multitasking allows me to get a lot accomplished. I feel good when I wind down and realize that I hit most of my targets by working fast, switching focus and spreading my attention.

Having said that, I should point out that sometimes I avoid multitasking, for example, when I am writing and editing. While I am a multitasker at heart there are times when it’s not productive. And that’s when I go into my sole-focus mode.

Plus, I would have to say that multitasking is probably not efficient and productive for everyone. In fact, I agree that it can be dangerous if you tend to get overly stressed, distracted by having too much going on, and unable to dedicate enough attention to the task at hand to do it successfully.

But, for me, I will continue to multitask and enjoy every second of it.

Are you a multitasker? Do you think it makes you more or less productive?

Image credit: Mark Goddard

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  • http://www.myburg.com cajebo

    Of course it does. And clicking on links to great articles like this one didn’t do much for helping in my quest for Monotasking Dominance.

    :)

    Seriously though, great read.

  • mwistrand

    I completely agree. As nice as it would be sometimes to tell clients, “You know, that’s really not as important to me as this other project, so I’ll get to your thing when I’m done with that,” it’s simply not a wise or feasible way of doing things. And more often than not, I’ve got projects of equal importance and similar due dates, so multi-tasking is entirely necessary.

  • http://www.lowter.com charmedlover

    You don’t necessasrily get more done just because you’re doing three things at once. Quite often you can finish more if you devote yourself to one task at a time. I know that Zen Habits always adovcates having only two or three projects a week and getting only a few task done a day. The argument isn’t that it reduces stress, but that it allows you to actually get things done.

    I feel that telling someone to “multitask” is simply like saying “be productive”. It doesn’t give any path to follow as to how to be successful. How is multitasking better than “single”-tasking? You say you get more done, but do you actually? I’m not entirely convinced of either way, but I think single-tasking makes more sense. If you try and rake the garden and trim the hedges at the same time in little spurts, I can guarantee you’ll have uneven hedges!

  • jspa

    its a needing, too much to do…
    and when you go overwhelmed … its because you are not organizing what are you doing.

    good article :D

  • Arlen

    Of course, and the research backs it up. The human brain absolutely *cannot* multitask. When you pay attention to one thing, everything else loses attention, and if you try to pay attention to two or more things at once, neither gets your attention. The brain only focuses on one thing at a time.

    What is happening when you leap from one task to another, is your brain has to switch contexts, which costs you time. Which means that working on three things at the same time will *always* take you longer than working three things sequentially, all other things being equal.

    Quoting from John Medina’s “Brain Rules”: “Studies show that a person who gets interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50% more errors.”

    The key, which you almost touch on, is attention span. Normal spans are about 10 minutes, when something has to happen or the attention flags. Your developed mechanism to cope with that is a task switch; there are other ways, which induce less stress (your “feel-good” wind down is merely a symptom of the transition in stress levels, going from unpleasant to pleasant will always feel better than from pleasant to similar level of pleasant — remember the old joke about the man who banged his head against the wall because it felt so good when he stopped?) and retain still context, meaning higher productivity levels.

    Still from long experience with adrenaline junkies (hey, I used to be one, myself) I know I’ll not convince you.

  • alzwell1

    I’m a remote worker on a multinational team (across time zones), so I work a lot of interesting hours and long stretches, like most development team members. Multi-tasking is a way of life and it works well for me.

    Not only can I work on my code, respond to bugs, and attend phone meetings at the same time, all while I’m doing laundry or marinating dinner.

    And what do i get out of it? Good home cooked meals nightly, lunch break at the dog park up the street, and don’t spend my “free time” doing laundry. It feels great.

    Gotta love it.

  • Jay

    @alzwell1:

    Not only can I work on my code, respond to bugs, and attend phone meetings at the same time, all while I’m doing laundry or marinating dinner.

    Hmmm…be careful, I foresee the writing of poor code, responding to a bug about it, phone meeting about what caused the bug, washing a steak and then sprinkling detergent on your pasta ;)

  • bebopdesigner

    I’ve done multitasking a lot, mainly because at work I expected to do so. Even though I get things done, I can’t help it, I end up exhausted. I feel more productive when I focus on one thing at a time. My guess is, multitasking as well as “monotasking” is not for everyone: One has to have a certain skill or talent.
    Love your articles. Thanks for posting

  • http://www.genexbs.com Genexbs

    We like most others multitask all the time. Personally we feel that with more tasks to handle we become more responsible and effective. Without multitasking its difficult to become successful.

  • Anonymous

    Cell phone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries in the United States every year, according to the journal’s publisher, the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

    The joy of multi-tasking…

  • Hamranhansenhansen

    Multitasking destroys your productivity. It’s terrible workflow. It keeps you busy, so you don’t notice how little work you’re doing. You don’t focus, your computer doesn’t focus, and you get less done than if you make a proper plan and execute each item one by one until you’re done. If you work on only one thing from 10-12 AM then you can look at the result and say “was that worth 2 hours?” Otherwise, you just have a vague feeling that you worked really hard, you must have done something productive.

  • kongning

    I feel more productive when I focus on one thing at a time. My guess is, multitasking as well as “monotasking” is not for everyone: One has to have a certain skill or tale sexy heels http://www.heelsunion.com

  • Gaurav M

    its good to multitask in terms of work and achievement but the prize you get is Homomachines

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  • SayB

    it can be argued that to what you are referring as multi-tasking is in fact monotasking – simple reason is, you are focusing on the bigger goal, and all the “multiple” tasks are part of it, so your brain actually simulates these as part of one task. Actually this is what I noticed that in certain situations I can multi task easily but in some I experience trouble (the same tasks !). It’s just the perspective, it can matter a lot to your brain :)

    But in general, not a fan of multi-tasking, especially when programming.

  • http://www.ashad.info ashadweb

    Yeah sometimes It may slow down your productivity and also the concentration. but Multitasking is very important.

    Independent Web Designer

  • http://www.ashad.info ashadweb

    yeah sometimes multitasking is very important to save time. and sometime it may down the productivity because not easy to concentrate.

    Independent Web Designer

  • http://www.jfulldesign.com JFulldesign

    I find it hard to multiple things well at one time. I don’t think the most effective way to work is to multitasking. Albeit it is sometime unavoidable, I think a more proficient approach is to work a finite amount of time taking a small break to re-focus then move on to the next task, if necessary.

  • iPhone

    Right,

    To be or not to be, it’s a question. No doubt, multitasking would distract from concentration.

    nchotdeal

  • http://www.arwebdesign.net samanime

    I am totally a multitasker.

    I’ve heard from a lot of people that multitasking is bad or what not, and it may be, for them. However, I can easily switch between a number of tasks with ease and work on them at the same time.

    I think it really is how your brain is wired. I think some of us are designed to be multitaskers, and some of us are not. I think more importantly than “picking a side” in this argument is to find what works for you and do it. I’m generally a very laid-back, low-stress person so it’s pretty easy for me to do numerous complicated tasks without getting stressed about them and what not.

    Also, unlike other people it seems, I actually feel like I accomplish less when I work on one thing at a time and I know that most tasks I get done faster if I multitask.

    To each their own.

  • http://www.jasonbatten.com NetNerd85

    What is multi-tasking? Your conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time.

  • Basia

    Women tend to be multitasking – it is natural to care childrem, cook meals, clean rooms and dig a garden at the same time.
    Men tend to be monotasking – they had to concentrate on a deer, otherwise, no dinner tomorrow…
    Jokes aside – just people are different, more or less multitasking and more or less enjoying it.
    Probably even the most monotasking people are able to talk while driving a car, isnt’t it true?

  • omg

    Probably even the most monotasking people are able to talk while driving a car, isnt’t it true?

    Which is HIGHLY illegal in Australia

  • robinthomas

    I can’t agree with her. She may be able to do multitasking . But it doesn’t mean that she is more productive when doing multitasking.

    I agree more with Arlen

  • Marcy

    You may want to read The Myth of Multitasking by Dave Crenshaw.

  • Anonymous

    as you see, confronted with some reality check those pesky self proclaimed masters of multi-tasking dont even take the time to reply or if they do they just come out with some plain bullshit. So if u ever get driven over, dont take it personal…probably it was some busy pm scolding her husband over the ants in the rubbish, while updating their stupid news on twitter while organizing her son’s birthday at mac donald on the second mobile while trying to send that important business email using her right foot (those **** black berries are not telepatic yet)…wait did u say right foot? How the **** are u gonna brake….but you know she accomplishes more…

  • Jason

    I think it would be interesting to poll the readers and see how many prefer multitasking then break it down by their sex. I bet more women prefer to multitask than men. It’s just how we’re all hard wired.