Archive for May, 2009

Multitasking is Evil

The Problem

There was a time when I thought that my ability to multitask was my greatest asset. You can probably infer from the phrasing there that this time has passed. Older and wiser, I can now see multitasking for what it is: evil.

When you’re rocking a (no offense) basic kind of a job, multitasking can be excellent. The ability to keep multiple plates spinning as a waitress, or keep hold of all the threads of client requests at a retail clothing store, or to store numerous problems in RAM as an IT tech can be invaluable.

In my time as a tech, sometimes I’d be the only person holding down the fort at a research institution with over two hundred scientists and employees. In this scenario, I prided myself on being able to start up three tasks at once, head out to fix two others, come back to wrap the first three and then start up anew.

While that was immensely helpful for my business life, it started me down a pretty destructive habitual path. I trained my brain to multitask. I was wired to need to do multiple things at once and I had convinced myself this was productivity. What I was not telling myself was that my ability to divide my mind between 5 or 6 short-term tasks was a great tool to use as a low level tech, but that it would not serve me well for almost any other high level pursuit out there.

The best analogy for multitasking is talking on the cell phone while you drive. You are clearly doing two things at once. Twice as efficient, right? Not necessarily. For the vast majority of people, they’re doing two things at once, but only doing one well (hence recent legislations against cell phone drivers). They are either giving a larger share of focus to the conversation and neglecting the road, or they’re driving well and only marginally involved in the conversation.

Multitasking might let you get a lot done quickly when the tasks are simple and short, but it is brutal for heavy duty tasks, and I learned this very quickly once I entered into the ranks of management. My ability to plan and execute long-term, multi-faceted projects was strangely atrophied. I’d look at these projects that might stretch for months and have no idea how to tackle them. Or, more frustrating, I’d have a gameplan that I’d set out and then never make any progress.

I was continuing to multitask, and it was destroying my productivity. It would start as: project work. Before I knew it: project work and incoming e-mail. Then: project work, incoming e-mail, IM with friend about writing project. Then: project work, incoming e-mail, IM with friend, listen to CD I might buy. Before I knew it, my brain didn’t know where I was going with the larger project and it would leap at the chance to focus on something else. And suddenly my ability to do many things at once turned me into someone who wasn’t getting anything done.

Fixing It

Breaking yourself of the multitask habit is a simple process of schedule management. You’ve got an 8 hour day ahead of you. Break it up. I prefer to break my day into one-hour long blocks – giving me eight slots for to-do items each day (you could do 30 minutes for 16 blocks, but you start to skirt close to cutting things short that way). At the start of your week, look over your calendar, block out each day. During each time-block, focus only on the task you have allocated.

I will guarantee you that you will get more done and it will feel easier at the same time. I used a RAM analogy earlier, and I think it really applies here. I read through David Allen’s Getting Things Done and that was the chief concept I took away from it. Your brain has a set amount of psychic RAM, just like a computer. You only have so much room to store information for rapid retrieval. Blocking out and dedicating your schedule in this fashion enables you to shut off whole segments of that psychic RAM. Instead of having 20 things eating away at your brain and your productivity, you have that one thing.

I’ve started doing this more rigidly and am making great strides with my projects and to-do’s. Larger scale jobs are now becoming more viable, since I’m devoting time to them. I can’t just turn tail and do something else each time a ponderous project gets too tricky. I’m committed.

Take a look and see if multitasking is eating your personal life, too. Can you not watch a movie without texting? Do you talk to friends on the phone while you surf the web? Try to apply one thing at a time there as well. You’ll probably find you get more out of each action you take.


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