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.