The Fallacy of Multitasking

by David Ning on 15 February 2011 8 comments
Photo: Ryan Ritchie

Let's imagine that you finally decide to ignore the latte factor and buy a cup of $5 iced coffee at the nearby coffee shop. It smells good, but you want to drive home before you drink it because your baby just started crying, and you know she wants to be home as soon as possible. (See also: 3 Reasons Why Keeping Your "Latte Factor" Will Help You Save Money)

You get out of your car, holding the cup of coffee in one hand and while carrying your baby home, and she decides that the coffee is better on the ground than in your hand. Slap! With baby arms swinging, all you can manage is the look of disbelief as you see your coffee splattered all over your front lawn. 

You ask yourself why you didn't just carry the baby into the living room before going back out to get the coffee, but what's done is done. You make sure your child is safe, and then you quickly try to undo the new "brown grass" that you just created. In an effort to save about 35 seconds of your life, you wasted that cup of coffee, managed to wipe that smile off your face, and spent another 10 minutes trying to turn brown back to green.

Misconceptions of Multitasking

I hope this doesn't sound familiar, but how many times have you tried to do two things at once, only to end up taking more time than if you just focused on one task at a time?

Every time I hire someone, I make it a point to discuss multitasking if the word ever shows up on the resume. Many people think that multitasking simply means doing two things at once, but it's seldom possible. What ends up happening is that the quality of work on both tasks suffers, and sometimes, things even need to be redone. This is the opposite of efficiency.

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There's No True Multitasking

In reality, we just aren't wired to perform two tasks at once. And this may come as a surprise to some, but neither are computers. What actually happens is that all the resources of the computer are shared by each task, with some resources used to handle the switching between the tasks. The illusion of true multitasking only happens because the computer can do this so efficiently and quickly that it seems to be doing everything at once. Have you ever tried to open many different programs, and they all take forever to load? This is multitasking at work.

How to Improve Your Efficiency

Instead of trying to do two things at the same time, you should actually be trying to focus on one task at a time. Get one thing done, then move onto the next. In real life, there will no doubt be times when you have to handle two projects concurrently. In these cases, you still have to focus on one project at a time. Work on one, then set it aside while you work on the other. Anytime you try to switch between the two means time lost, so do your best to keep "project hopping" to a minimum!

Additionally, here are some tips to help you focus on only one task:

  • Cut out distractions by learning to say no.
     
  • Write down everything about the project you aren't working on at the moment, so you don't have to think about it or worry that you will forget about little details.
     
  • Put a higher emphasis on having enough sleep. It's hard, I know, but when you aren't tired all the time, you will be able to concentrate better and you can get everything done more quickly, giving you a bit more time to have more sleep.
     
  • Check out these tips to help you get more done.

Next time you try to multitask, beware of the loss in efficiency, and think twice before you try to work on two tasks at once.

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Guest's picture
Connie

Seriously?? You don't think that two mindless tasks can be done at once? Make dinner and clean the kitchen? Wait on hold and write an email? Watch TV and fold the laundry?

Congrats you have just set womankind back to before industrialization. From my observations, men are not as good as women at multitasking. I learnt at my Mom's feet and she learnt at her mom's. There are times when you have kids that you must soothe the baby and get a snack for the 2 year old and answer a question from the 5 year old. If all of those tasks were done sequentially, the house would fall down before supper was made.

Yes there are times that we push it a bit too far but that is why the coffee falls so that we can find a better way to hold the coffee and carry the baby. I have a special holder in my bag that holds a coffee upright so I can grab other stuff.

Guest's picture
Guest

Why on earth would I clean coffee off my grass? Is your grass astroturf, perchance?

Guest's picture
Brian

Yes. Seriously. I wouldn't presume to answer for the author, but I can respond to your examples.

Waiting on hold and watching TV are passive. You are not actually doing anything. You are present, but not active.

I suspect that cleaning the kitchen actually happens in the gaps of time it takes for the food to be cooked by the stove. It is when cleaning takes precedence that dinner gets burned. That's when cleaning happens outside of the gaps between cooking activities. I've been there.

I think the point is quite sound. I am proud of my ability to follow two conversations simultaneously. However, if I'm honest, I will admit that I am just switching back and forth rapidly. I miss parts of each conversation and have to fill in the rest.

Guest's picture
Christine

Some years ago I landed a job in a retiree benefits call center. I was 42, just graduated with a BS in finance and was told at my new job I should be doing two things at once, for example, I should be able to address an envelope while listening to the caller. I quickly discovered that if I did anything other than stack papers while on the phone, I was not able to pay attention to the details of the call in order to assist the caller. Sure, maybe others could write addresses out by hand while capturing enough details to help, but I wasn't one of them. I did a great job of helping the callers and I did a great job of addressing envelopes and other routine functions, but not at the same time. I don't apologize for it anymore. It's just the way I am. BUT I was not easily distracted and can till this day pay very close attention to my work at hand, tuning out everything around me.

Guest's picture

David, In order to increase productivity, I have a counterintuitive suggestion. Cut down on what you do each day. Streamline your "to do" list to ONLY THE MOST IMPORTANT 3-5 TASKS per day. No multi tasking, no minutia. It's amazing how doing less yields increased productivity.

Guest's picture
Gil

True "multi-tasking" or at least the illusion of it can be very inefficient (especially if you're also relying on your own memory/time sense - another task to "run" along with the other tasks you're juggling) for some and in certain situations. But I do believe that doing multiple tasks simultaneously (using the gaps or down time of each) is completely doable and can be much more efficient than doing each sequentially.

I think it depends greatly on what you're doing, your own capacity for multi-tasking and how you're keeping yourself on track. So although the point of the author is valid to a degree, I think the simplicity of saying don't multi-task because it's not efficient is off. For mothers out there, almost nothing would be done if there wasn't some multi-tasking going on. I believe the bigger snags occur when we try to do too much or juggle too many tasks at once (like Barbara says). Just like our computers (which technically aren't multi-tasking, as noted), we're just switching back and forth. Some people are just better and switching back and forth (with some help from our to do list and handy reminders).

Oh as for the example, who's to say once you got your coffee in the house (on a separate trip), you don't end up knocking it to the floor yourself and spend the same amount of time "wasted" cleaning up the spilled coffee and yourself. It's not so much the act of carrying in the coffee with the baby (although hot coffees and babies don't mix anyways) that is making for inefficiencies, it's that sometimes things happen that require extra unaccounted for time (and with kids, those come up a whole lot).

Guest's picture

Actively pursuing two tasks at once is detrimental to both; the human mind doesn't truly multitask, rather it slices attention.

That being said, relying on a machine to do a task as you oversee it doesn't fall into my definition of multitasking. So I don't believe my hubby when he says, "I did laundry for three hours today." No, he spent actively about 30 minutes loading, switching and folding. The rest of the time the machines did the work.

Guest's picture

I don't mind multitaskers if their multitasking does not affect another person. When they try to do six million things at once and make someone's life/job miserable, that's when I develop a deep seeded hatred for these people.

I work in tech support and every single day I have to deal with people who want me to magically fix their issue (which 80% of the time THEY caused) but since they are also feeding the baby, taking calls on the other line, and yelling at somebody in the background, they lack the focus to understand basic instructions, like right click or left click, or terms like "upper right hand corner." I have to repeat every single step 3-4 times and explain pretty basic things over and over again because the person is not paying attention. Ultimately a 4 minute call stretches into 24 minutes because the person I am speaking to is preoccupied.

There is a time and place for multitasking. There is NOT a time and place for multitasking. People need to learn the difference. Just like drugs or drinking or any other vice, if your multitasking is affecting another person in a negative way, it's a BAD thing!