E L S U A ~ A KM Blog Thinking Outside The Inbox by Luis Suarez

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The Myth of Multitasking Revisited

El Alcázar de SegoviaIn the past, and over the last few months, I have been blogging around the topic of multitasking quite a bit and I am starting to believe, more and more by the day, and rather firmly!, by the way, in our inability to multitask effectively, specially when having to deal with rather complex and tough tasks / activities in our day to day work. Lucky enough, plenty of really fascinating research is coming up confirming what I already suspected from all along and I just couldn’t help resisting the opportunity to cite one recent piece I bumped into under the suggestive heading: “Don’t Spread Yourself Too Thin: The Impact of Task Juggling on Workers’ Speed of Job Completion“. I use to believe I might be capable of multitasking effectively and everything, but after reading through that paper one gets to realise it’s just a myth. It’s always been a myth. Time to move on…

I first bumped into that piece of research over at the Freakonomics blog, under the title “The Myth of Multiasking” and, as usual, I just couldn’t help but find some time to read through it in order to confirm that hunch I have been having for a few months now, after I wrote the initial article “Is Multitasking Bad for the Brain?“, which sparked a recent change in how I get work done nowadays: The Pomodoro Technique.

The superb piece of research was conducted by Decio Coviello, Andrea Ichino and Nicola Persico who set themselves to analyse a sample of Italian judges investigating how they were keeping up with the various cases they were working on and how effective they could multitask eventually. Or not. And their conclusion couldn’t be more revealing:

“[…] workers who juggle too many tasks are necessarily slower in completing this workload than workers who concentrate sequentially on few tasks at the same time […]”

I am not going to spoil it for you all and share many more insights further from the conclusion itself, you would have to read through the paper itself, but I am sure you can probably ascertain what it would be like. A wonderful read throughout, for sure! Highly recommended!

Since I am no longer a believer in multitasking, I am sure that, at this point in time, you may be wondering how I am doing myself with singlecasting, right?, specially having followed The Pomodoro Technique over the last few months… Well, it cannot be going better than it is at the moment, actually. Usually, I get started with my morning routines checking out the agenda for the day (For meetings and conference calls, so I can decide whether I need to prepare any of them, or not), and then I sit down for a few minutes picking up three (relatively tougher) tasks that would require my attention and full focus and for those three I would set up my pomodoro to 25 minutes to complete each and everyone of them. No matter what! No interruptions, no short breaks, nothing. Get them done and then move into something else. Usually a break after each of them has been completed.

Then the rest of the day is dedicated to some of those meetings and conference calls, closing off some other minor tasks / activities and catching up with my various social networking streams, both internally and externally; and, finally, perhaps allow some of the multitasking that still lingers in my day to day workload. That’s usually my day to day, although, as of late, I have been doing something that I never thought I would be doing, AND with great results! By the beginning of November, I decided to apply the Pomodoro Technique to how I interact in social networks as well, something that didn’t happen in the past that often.

That’s right! For a few weeks now I set up my pomodoro twice in the morning, to 25 minutes each, to catch up on my social networking streams, and perhaps another one, or two! (I depends on whether I have got more or less meetings!) in the afternoon to keep myself up to date with what’s happening and to find areas where I can help or contribute. And that gives me an idea of the time I spend, overall, in social networks; right now it’s coming closer to three hours per day, including blogging as well, combining both inside and outside social networking and somehow it’s starting to give me an opportunity to handle the social (Intra-)Web much better by sharing, connecting and helping other folks by being there, much more focused in the first place than whatever was happening in the past, where I was increasingly having that strong sense of spreading far too thin! (Which I am sure is a feeling I am sharing with plenty of you folks out there…).

I never thought I would be saying this, but by limiting my multitasking time to the bare minimum, even for my social networking activities, I am starting to find out that I am much more involved and energised and engaged with what’s around me, and the amount of stress trying to combining it all with some good balance is now a thing of the past. The pomodoro technique is helping me do that without me having to worry too much; and, eventually, since I am capturing all of the various different statistics, I am having a better grasp of where my time seems to be going, whether internal or external and whether I need to shift gears for one or the other depending on what needs to get done, which is really nice, because it allows me to almost completely eradicate multitasking altogether and, in my opinion, that can only be a good thing, because, after all, it *is* bad for the brain. Even for my social brain! … You.


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  1. Luis, of course it’s much more complicated than that. I don’t believe that “multitasking” as a word or a construct is something that people should not do… or should do. Actually, I think there are different forms of multitasking. Some styles of doing it are more harmful, while others are helpful.

    For example, we all know the scenario in which we call upon someone in a meeting to answer a question, only to find that they have not been paying attention, and so the whole question needs to be repeated. Yes, I agree that when someone needs to be paying attention, that their attention (as you know I’ve argued in the past) is a limited resource which cannot be successfully divided between two tasks when both tasks demand results at the same time. In other words, when you need someone to do something, if they are doing something else, it’s a no no.

    However, demands on productivity require workers to economize every minute of their daily allotment of attention. It is no longer viable to expect that people dedicate 100% attention to a meeting merely because the meeting was scheduled for the block of time. Too often, attendees are NOT required for each discussion in the meeting. Their attendance is often because they need to be “on-call” during the meeting to engage in discussions, on a spare-of-the-moment basis, should they be needed. Therefore, their attention is free to be invested elsewhere. And so, they start taking care of other things. Some people would call this “multitasking.”

    I argue that this latter form of multitasking is perfectly legitimate and helpful.

    So, what is a poor leader supposed to do when their meeting attendees are not paying attention and questions have to be repeated? ANSWER: Be acutely aware, respectful, and gracious about the fact that people may be required wander away from the discussion. Think ahead before asking a question… Think about who you will need to answer the question… realize that you might not have that person’s attention… give them a verbal prompts… declare who the question is for before asking the question… pause for a moment before asking the question… GRAB the person’s attention by using their name before asking the question.

    I’ve been practicing this for the past several years with fantastic success.

  2. I think as well that the pomodoro technique works pretty good. I use it ti get my work done and it works. I am not so keen on working on several tasks at the same time I just end up doing nothin and wasting time.

    I haven’t arrived yet to the extreme of controlling how much time I sound on the social sites but I guess it might be usefull.

    Nice post.

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