A busy life gives you a million and one reasons to multitask. And it is tempting to give in to that, especially when work and family collide.
You’ve got to get the kids ready and off to school. And they need new clothes, supplies, video games, whatever. Extra curricular activities, after school events, visiting with friends.
On top of that, you have to get yourself ready for work, help your spouse, do chores, volunteering, social time with friends, hobbies and recreation…
And you still need to get some work done!
Multitasking – The Answer You Think You Need
Until cloning is perfected the answer most of us turn to is multitasking. The simple skill of doing more than one thing at a time.
Talking on the phone with a client while you read emails and file bills.
Listening to motivational tapes while you change the baby’s diaper and feed her.
Working out your schedule and to do list while in a staff meeting.
It’s great! You can get so much more done by doing more than one thing at a time! Why didn’t they invent this sooner?
Back Up A Second
Let’s back up a second. Let’s look at what multitasking really is before we get all excited about it.
I am a computer programmer and studied computer science in university oh so many years ago. And I learned about multitasking in computer environments as part of that.
You see, computers did not multitask in the beginning. They were given one program to run at a time. The computer ran the program without any interruptions. When it was finished, another program was loaded and it ran to completion (well, usually… let’s not talk about infinite loops).
This was fine when there was no human interaction with the program. But when programs were made that interacted through a keyboard and crt, it was found that they spent a lot of time just waiting for the user to do something. Wasted time!
So computer scientists developed algorithms that allowed the computer to spend a few milliseconds on one program, then switch to another, and then another. This allowed the computer resources to be productively used and shared.
The Human Computer
So let’s bring this into the realm of you and me. The human computer (your brain) is able to multitask as well. You can spend a few seconds thinking about 1 task, then switch to another, then back to the first, then switch to a 3rd, and so on.
You can multitask!
But there is something that you need to know. It is something that is called context switching. This is another computer term. And it describes the task of pausing one program and switching to another. [If you want to read more, see this Wikipedia entry]
The important thing about context switching is that it has a cost. Every time that the context switches the operating system has to do some stuff to move the one program out of the cpu and load the next one it. Depending on the resources available (and what the programs need) this can consume a large part of the computer’s time.
It can even get so bad that the computer spends all of it’s time trying to switch from one program to another and never actually runs any of the programs! That is known as thrashing.
Just like a computer cpu, your brain has to go through a context switch when you change from one task to another. Every time that you switch what your focused on, you lose a little time.
And often, you don’t actually get into focus on one task before you switch back to something else — you start to thrash.
So Is Multitasking Really The Answer?
I suspect that you already know what my answer to this question is going to be.
A few NY Times articles might be eye opening…
Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, And Don’t Read This In Traffic has some interesting things for you to ponder. I was especially shocked by the results of the study of Microsoft employees — 15 minutes to get back to work after getting an email or instant message? Wow!
Multitasking Can Make You Lose … Um … Focus is another great article. You’ll recognize the part about email voice. I’m sure you’ve heard it (and had it yourself 8=)
Another article at Innovation Management deals with how multitasking in projects affects delivery time. While it is speaking about multitasking at higher level (i.e. in projects rather than tasks), there are some graphics that really show the effects of context switching. You need to check that out.
The fact is, multitasking is not the best use of your time. I will admit that there are times where you have no choice. And I know that some people are better at it than others (although most of us think we’re better at it than we really are 8=)
But the simple fact is that you won’t do your best work on any of the tasks when you try to do them all at the same time. You just can’t.
Maybe the work will be good enough. And maybe that’s okay with you. But it won’t be the best you could do.
So stop reading this article! Share it with your friends, and then get to work!