Multitasking and productivity
What is multitasking, really?
How is it affecting the modern workspace?
What can we do to be productive?
6 min read time
In computing, multitasking is the concurrent execution of multiple tasks (processes) over a certain period of time. New tasks can interrupt already started ones before they finish, instead of waiting for them to end. As a result, a computer executes segments of multiple tasks in an interleaved manner, while the tasks share common processing resources such as central processing units (CPUs) and main memory. Before being interrupted, a process will save its status so that it will be able to resume execution at a later point. This is called context switching, and there is a cost associated to it.
The rise of human multitasking
From the computer realm, multitasking has become very popular to indicate the human’s ability to carry on multiple tasks at the same time. Multitasking has become a skill required in many job specs: how many times have you seen this: “A top priority for this position is the ability to multitask”. Multitasking has become an important part of our workplace and life in general now.
Computers don’t actually do multiple things at once, they rapidly switch between tasks. The same is true for humans. According to Dr Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University:
it’s impossible for us to actually perform multiple tasks simultaneously with the same amount of focus devoted to each one.
We will use “task switching” in the rest of the article where possible, as a more fitting term, given that what we actually do is constantly redirecting our attention to new tasks instead of performing them at the same time.
Task switching in life
We commute while we eat AND listen to a podcast. We check our phones while we listen to music AND we do our home chores. We use our phones even when we drive. And many of us feel productive, possibly proud of our ability to “multitask”.
Task switching at work
It’s common in modern workplaces to be in a scenario like this: you have to finish multiple tasks by the end of the day, you keep switching your focus to check your emails and Slack notifications as there might be something that requires your attention or you are involved in a thread. You have calendar notifications, Zoom notifications, browser notifications (do you want to buy this product? Do you accept cookies? Do you want to subscribe?), Windows/Mac notification (do you want to update?). It’s rare to get more than 20 minutes of uninterrupted focus.
Working from home
Now that many of us are working from home, we also have Zoom/Teams fatigue. There are meetings where you need to listen to the host, watch the shared screen, while walls of texts from multiple conversations are been written in the chat.
Also, since personal life and professional life are merging, we have new distractions: Alexa tells you that your parcel will be delivered today, Deliveroo informs you that the driver with your lunch is nearby (and generally will have to call you as they can’t find your building door), your washing machine/dishwasher is beeping, neighbours are noisy, your kids are interrupting. Most likely you have the phone near the desk, flashing and/or beeping.
Is it productive?
There is a substantial amount of research indicating that multitasking is actually not productive. In The One Thing, Gary Keller’s bestseller, he lists multitasking as one of the six lies that we practice as we reach for success. Keller writes:
the truth is multitasking is neither efficient nor effective. In the world of results it will fail you every time.
Research shows it takes an average of 23 minutes to regain focus after a distraction because different parts of your brain are activated every time you switch between tasks, even ones as simple as answering a teammate’s question while attending a meeting.
Should we try to get better at it?
Even is task switching were efficient and effective, there are very good reasons to avoid it as much as possible. There is mounting evidence from research that it can deteriorate your mental health in many ways, besides being dangerous in some situations: A 2013 study in Public Health Reports, “Distracted Driving: Voice-Activated Systems and Drivers’ Reaction Times,” found that the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by distracted drivers has risen significantly — for pedestrians, the fatality rate due to distracted driving increased 45% from 2005 to 2010, and for cyclists, it jumped 32%.
So what can we do?
There are many things we can do to improve our productivity and protect our mental health, here are some that really worked for me: