Multitasking gets a bad rap. Pretty much every productivity article says that multitasking is a big no no. But this henchman of the information worker has a good side, is a manifestation of reality and there are ways to curb it’s negative tendencies on productivity. Let’s see how the advantages of multitasking can be harnessed and it’s disadvantages mitigated.
Before we get stuck into the business of reviewing the pros and cons of multitasking let’s first be clear about what it is.
Generally when people talk about multi-tasking in a work context it refers to switching to a second task before completing the first task which inevitably means having to return to the first to complete it. This can be illustrated by means of a simple bar diagram below,
It is this situation that we will discuss further in this article. I will cover the topic in 3 stages,
- Pros of multitasking
- Cons of multitasking
- Mitigating the cons
Efficient utilisation of the time available
The longer the duration of a task the less likely it is that one can start the task and finish it in one stretch without deviation to another task or tasks. There are a myriad of reasons behind this such as,
- Waiting on other people to provide their inputs
- Waiting for material/parts to arrive
- The context does not allow for task activity, e.g. you need to be in a certain place to do it.
If one was to strictly adhere to a mono-tasking approach you would be left waiting a lot of the time and as a result one could say the time was not used efficiently. Additionally, the items listed here are a reflection of reality and in reality people multi-task when such situations arise.
Optimum use of the time
Being focussed on a single task to completion rarely reflects the typical human condition. For example, many people are fresh in the morning and it may be at this time that one should focus on the brain crunching tasks at hand. Come the afternoon lull, is that really the time to try and tackle is and even if you do, will it be in a less than optimum way? Perhaps the morning is better spent doing the difficult task and the afternoon servicing other activities that require less focus. In Getting Things Done, GTD, terms this would be task selection based on energy available.
Personally I am not that creative type but there are many who are. For those who need to have the creative juices flowing, is it going to happen on a daily basis from 9 to 5?
Sometimes for creative work, a break is needed or to engage in other activities. i.e. multi-tasking. Even writing blog posts, I often have to mull it over for some time or write an article in sections as information becomes available or as an idea germinates. I guess I would call that multi-tasking.
Responsive to change
We may all begin our day with the best intentions in mind to complete some important activities only to be broad sided by another urgent task which derails the carefully pre-planned important stuff. What is the likely scenario here? Most likely task 1 is stopped and the urgent task is undertaken. Again, multi-tasking strikes. To put a positive spin on this though, one could say the approach was responsive to a changing situation where a higher priority task could be effectively dealt with.
Enables Team Progress
It is common in collaborative team work to get ad-hoc requests and frequently the response to those is necessary for the team member to progress their work. So, do you,
- Ignore the request in the interests of staying focussed on your task
- Quickly switch to the second task to deliver the information they need to proceed
In practice, I would say “b”, is the frequent choice and in many cases for the overall progress of the team is the best one to make. The consequence of that choice is of course, multitasking, and in this case it has just helped the team progress towards their common goal. Another score for multitasking!
In terms of the disadvantages of multi-tasking there is a lot of studies and advice that indicate it is generally not a good thing. I pick up some of the disadvantages noted in this section.
Switching between tasks loses time
In many cases when switching between tasks, time is lost in picking up the second task and closing the first. When repeated many times between different tasks this lost time can add up as indicated by the modified multitasking diagram below.
Research from the American Psychological Association has indicated that up to 40% less productivity can result. However, it is also inferred from the article that the task duration was very short and therefore the switching time therefore appears relatively huge in comparison. With longer tasks and well orchestrated changes between tasks, this additional time could be minimised.
A concentrated focussed effort for a period of time is one way is often a cited way to get things done. It is advocated in the Pomodoro technique to accompany these focussed periods with short breaks before continuing. With multi-tasking we miss this relentless focus and in doing so may lose the efficiency of completing that task as quickly as possible. Others such as Brian Tracy have also advocated a similar mentality with “compulsion to closure”, where one does not let up on a task until it is done and dusted.
Some studies have shown that with multi-tasking errors are likely to increase unless you are one of the so called supertaskers that can handle multiple interruptions to work without a degradation in quality or increase in error.
But, it is not to say it is predicable that one will make more errors if you multi-task. In research conducted in hospitals the number of errors made by nurses was measured when scheduled interruptions to their work was done. Interestingly it shows that nurses with more interruptions to their work had fewer errors than those with less. This illustrates that with a complex work environment multi-tasking is but one of the factors determining error, and perhaps not even the primary factor.
Lower efficiency due to lack of batching
It is generally the case that efficiency on completing a given task is enhanced when repeated or done in batches. There are a couple of elements to this. First, as a task is done repetitively a standard is either followed or emerges in the process. This assists in getting the task done more efficiently as it evolves into the best approach for getting that task done. Secondly, in constantly repeating a task it becomes second nature to the person doing it to the point that they are in the groove so to speak. They know what has to be done, can execute it quickly and repeat. When one multi-tasks, both aspects of this are lost.
When returning to a task, when it has not been finished at a known reference point there is an element of backtracking. Going back to find where you left off and continuing. Worst case, some of the work you previously did may be repeated. In both cases, again a loss of productivity.
Mitigating multitasking cons
So, we have seen that in some cases multi-tasking can be helpful and perhaps even unavoidable but there are several disadvantages to it. Let’s now cover some strategies to mitigate or eliminate those downsides to try and get to a happy medium where one can multi-task to an extent without severe impact.
“Chunking it”, refers to breaking a task down into very small actionable steps or subtasks. The idea here is that we do not switch to a second task before the subtask is complete. The advantage of this is two fold. First, a clear finishing point for the task is defined and a clear starting point is known for when the task is re-started. This alleviates the element of backtracking and searching for what has been done on a task before resuming it.
Second, it gives a relatively short actionable chunk of work you can focus on to progress the overall task.
A second strategy in enabling efficient multitasking is to link the material you need to the associated task. This means that when you go back to a task a quick click on the associated links and you have all the files you need to get going again. This may save some minutes each time you pick up and put down tasks as it saves the normal searching for files. An example on how to do this is shown below using Abstractspoon ToDoList. In this free app, it is possible to add file links to each task. Clicking on the icon opens the file and allows the user then to continue with the task in hand.
Associate modes to the tasks
I got this idea from Mike Vardy, the Productivityist. He associates tasks by mode, for example email, writing, email etc. In switching between tasks, if one can associate the task, the mode and the frame of mind for that task it helps to provide the focus needed. So, for browsing emails, grab your coffee and slouch while scrolling and nattering to the colleague beside you. For something more challenging, put yourself in that frame of mind, perhaps change your surroundings and engage your pomodoro timer.
So, let’s not be too harsh when it comes to multitasking. Sure it has it’s downsides, but with a few tweaks to how it is applied those can be managed. Feel free to comment on your multitasking hacks!