Stupid Multitasking

Today I saw yet another info-byte on the perils of multi-tasking. I too, think that multitasking is rarely (if ever) as productive as multitaskers believe it is (note: my favorite study compares bong hits with multitasking…ymmv) – but we’ve all seen stuff like this over time.

What’s missing from many of the studies and stories that I’ve seen is a definition of what they mean by multitasking. The study above uses examples (and good ones, like the problem with texting and driving), but then seem to lump all other pseudo-multi-tasking into the same bucket. If, by multi-tasking, you mean texting while driving, writing code while playing a video game, or walking the dog while juggling, the studies are 100% true – but perhaps less so, if you consider multi-tasking to be ordering a pizza on the phone while taking your dog for a walk, or listening to the radio while cooking dinner.

But for most tasks requiring brainpower, we don’t actually do two things at once – humans are largely a single threaded system, and we tend to do one thing at a time quite well – it’s the context switch that kills us. This is especially true in knowledge work where we’re writing / coding / speaking / thinking; and where the context switch of doing something different (checking email, checking a blog post, answering the phone, sending a tweet, etc.) ruins our train of thought and takes us out of “the zone”.

But sometimes, context switches are necessary. My favorite example (as anyone who knows me would guess) is cooking. When I cook any meal of significance, context switches are required. One cannot cook a meal serially. If I make the vegetable, then the appetizer, then the main dish, then the desert, I get to serve everything cold. I need to start with my deadline (dinner time), think through the process needed to make each dish, then determine what needs to be done in what order to accomplish my goal. If I make a marinade that needs to sit for three hours, I better do that first. Anything that requires heat should finish as close to dinner time as possible. I love the orchestration of cooking a great meal, but this task would be impossible (or at least a failure) if I didn’t rely on the context switch.The trick is to plan for the context switch and optimize – do the stuff where you know you need to wait first. Mentally work backwards and set up intermediate check points. Sure, doing only one thing would probably be faster, but it’s not always practical..

I apply the same techniques to my daily work. I look at all of the things I need to do (which is nearly always more than I can do), and do anything with a built-in wait first. For example, I start most days by sending out any requests for information I may need, things I need reviewed, etc. Then I take on bigger tasks. For writing tasks, I use a pomodoro timer – for coding or testing tasks I just go to work (I’ve found that the pomodoro beep ends up being a distraction from these types of tasks– but that’s just me). But regardless of whether it’s a pomodoro timer, or a natural break in flow, I tend to use those breaks to let interruptions decide what’s next. It’s a conscious task switch, but just like in cooking, where I may take a moment to look around the kitchen and see what’s going on (oops – better turn the oven down), if you’re in a role where you need to own multiple pieces of a project, it’s critical to allow yourself to step back, look at the big picture, and either dive back in again, or refocus on another area.

Now, to be fair, when I have a bigger project to take on, I’ll minimize multi-tasking as much as possible. I can think of several occasions where I needed to focus on accomplishing a specific task – even at the expense of potentially more critical tasks. My approach in those situation involves a pomodoro timer, and three-hour blocks of time in the morning and afternoon, broken up by breaks for email and task juggling. But – for the most part, I’ve found much benefit in strategic task switching and planning ahead than in giving up and admitting to stupidity just because your plate is full.


  1. Daryl Welsh
    Posted August 14, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Permalink


    I agree that most people believe they are great multi-taskers, but in reality they’re not. What is worse is that you cannot convince people of the inefficiency of it. There’s a really good book called Brain Rules* that provides some heavy science behind the fallacy of multi-tasking and it was a wakeup call for me.

    After reading that book and realizing how much I was losing to context switching I’ve been working hard to move to a mostly single-tasked environment. The biggest gain I found was when I moved from a multi-monitor situation to a single one. This allows me to focus on one thing at a time, and while it’s hard to measure I do find that I’m more effective than before.

    In parallel to my quest for single-tasking I’ve been observing the shift in perception between people who use desktop/laptops and those who use apps on phone/tablets. I’ve found, subjectively, that people seem happier with their app experiences on devices and it got me thinking into why, and I think the lack of multitasking plays into it.

    Without realizing it, people who have shown the strong case for single-tasking with the success of the iPhone and other touch-based phones… For 99% of people using one of these devices they ‘bite’ off tasks in a single-tasking way. They launch a given app, which is usually limited in scope compared to what they would use on their PC, and it takes up the full UI on the device. They accomplish their task (like check their bank balance on the Bank of America app) and then go on to something else.

    The key thing here is that while in the single app, their mind is focused on just the information related to this one task. It’s not juggling multiple things at once. There’s very little if any context switching.

    I’ve heard so many people say how much simpler the phone/tablet experience is compared to using their PC and I think the mostly forced single-tasking nature is a big reason. Now I know there is ways to multitask on the phone/tablet, but I think that is a minority case.

    Single tasking, simplified experiences – where the apps are bite sized, makes for a perception of things being ‘better’. Add in the fact that on a phone/tablet you get to use a natural interface (touch) instead of translating movements through a mouse/keyboard and it further cements the perception of the devices being better.


  2. Posted August 15, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure anyone argues that one should never do any multitasking/context-switching. But it’s important to note that multitasking has a cost associated with it. Often, that cost is the effectiveness of the multi-tasked tasks. They simply aren’t being performed as well as they would be, if they were instead performed serially.

    “But sometimes, context switches are necessary. My favorite example (as anyone who knows me would guess) is cooking. When I cook any meal of significance, context switches are required.”

    Ok. But if you really had 3 hours to do nothing but stir and watch your spaghetti sauce simmer, you would have a far better chance of preventing it from burning.

    Back to the business world, check your mobile device 100 times during a meeting if you must, but don’t tell me that you understood the meeting presentation as well as you would have if you left your phone turned off.

    • Posted August 15, 2012 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      All valid points Joe. A meta point from the post is that you can’t avoid context switching entirely, but you can plan contet switches so they have the least impact.

      There’s also a chance of inattentional blindness if I’m cooking spaghettic sauce for 3 hours, but I get your point.

      And finally, I’ve walked out of meetings when I see half the room buried in their laptops or phones. If nobody can pay attendtion, I’m going to go do something else.

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