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Is Multitasking Effective for Your Work as a Developer?

danilapetrova profile image Danila Petrova Updated on ・3 min read

Multitasking is a fairly common concept. It is something that everyone has done to a certain degree and is also one that many disagree on. Some believe it raises the pace of getting things done. Others think it is, on the contrary, causing you to complete two tasks slower if you do them at the same time, rather than one after the other.

What is multitasking?

We are all very familiar with the term multitasking: it is simple right? Performing multiple tasks at the same time. For example, listening to music while washing dishes or maybe reading a blog post while waiting in line.

And those are some of the ways you can do two things at once, however, it becomes more difficult when it comes to two highly intellectual tasks, as opposed to combining an intellectually taxing one with a mechanical one that is performed by muscle memory to a large degree.

Only some can multitask

Do you know people who seem to be great at multitasking? They show you how efficient they are and act surprised when you cannot keep up with their speed?

While your brain prefers consecutive actions to the constant switch, there are, in fact, people who have found ways to make the most of it in a way that is working for them. They are better at quickly switching their attention from one task to another.

The risk comes with the fact that while those people switch quickly, they are also susceptible to distractions. Which is exactly why multitasking is considered to be damaging to productivity in terms of attention span.

The pitfalls of multitasking

Research in neuroscience has determined that the human brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously.

It is however fairly efficient with switching between tasks quickly. And the switch in our heads is a quick consecutive start and stop command.

And this is exactly the part of multitasking that has the potential to become tiring and in fact more time-consuming. And each switch costs us a few microseconds that add up to slowing your overall performance down by up to 50 percent depending on multiple factors, including your environment. You can check out more fun facts about multitasking in the infographic below.

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In addition to being potentially more time-consuming, the process costs not only valuable time but also energy. The more tasks that you try to string up, say… listening to music washing dishes and speaking to a family member, the more resource switching costs.

One thing you can do is attempt to do two tasks consecutively. And time how much you can do in a certain amount of time.
Then put them together timing the process again and compare the results.

This is a good way to test for yourself if multitasking is taking away or adding to your productivity.

Multitasking in software development

Now let's be completely honest. When it comes to people who rely greatly on the digital tools will have to be able to switch between tasks in order to perform an assignment.

So it would be not only impractical but quite ignorant to advise developers to only do one thing and use one tool at a time.

Coding and problem solving require obtaining information, processing it, changing the process or the code and then test how efficient it is. All those, while done consecutively are tightly intertwined and you would have to switch from one to another in the order that is the most beneficial to your current task.

So here are two of the main definitions of multitasking:

  1. Multitasking means switching back and forth from one thing to another
  2. Multitasking can also involve performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.

Both of those are key in software development. Switching between tasks is not simply a programmer’s choice but can quite literally be a necessity in order to code and create adequate software.

So cutting out the idea of multitasking completely is no more productive than deciding to multitask as a constant practice at all times.

When and how to multitask?

As you may have realized by now the key to effective productivity is neither avoiding it, nor abusing it, but rather moderation.

"Everything that exceeds the bounds of moderation has an unstable foundation"

  • Seneca

You need to know when it is key to your assignment when you are leaning on it as if it is a crutch out of habit and when you are avoiding it because you think it is all bad.

Assess the situation and use it when needed, as long as you are aware that it means simply switching from one task to another rather than doing them at the same time and that it can be taxing.

Discussion (12)

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alamarw profile image
Alamar

There was a neat book my work provided called Singletasking. And it covers a lot of the same stuff here. Here’s the link: amazon.com/Singletasking-More-Done.... And thanks for the post!

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allobrox profile image
Tamas Rigoczki

Thanks for mentioning this book, I will definitely read it.

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alamarw profile image
Alamar

Yeah, of course!

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danilapetrova profile image
Danila Petrova Author

Thank you so much for adding valuable resources to the topic! I will be sure to check it out as well.

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allobrox profile image
Tamas Rigoczki

Multitasking within a day very harmful for productivity because of context changes. But if you are doing only one task at a time within a day and different tasks each day, that would be an alternative to multitasking.

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rriggs95 profile image
Rriggs95 • Edited

Great post really insightful!

For me personally, I started multitasking instinctively from a young age, just to constantly keep my brain occupied rather than from the need to increase my productivity or anything. Having read this, I'm starting to think it's really hurt me more than it's helped. Being a new addition to the work force, I am having trouble obtaining a steady work flow. Whenever the time to start working on something comes,this urge to do something irrelevant at the same time slowly creeps in and wrecks my focus. Sometimes it feels like work just to keep my attention on the project at hand.

Hadn't really given it much thought before though, so thanks for the insightful, albeit accidental, opinion on my problem 😋

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danilapetrova profile image
Danila Petrova Author

To be completely honest, I understand what you mean, it builds up as a habit, and like any other habit, it can turn harmful if overused.

I did the same thing. When I was a teenager, I needed to commute around an hour and a half to school, and then again back home. Don't need to say how boring it can be on the bus.

I started listening to music, then added reading a book, then I started doing my homework. Now as I have spent a few years in the workforce, I maintained the same multitasking habits - listening to music while I work to avoid getting distracted, and then also on my way home while adding a book in the mix. However, putting myself through constant activity on multiple channels, so to speak, lead me to a terrible burnout and week-long headaches.

I am not saying that I don't listen to music or read on the bus anymore, but rather, I attempt to limit the times I do multiple things at once.

And I definitely try to steer clear of it while working and put in more dedicated focus on my tasks.

I hope this helps!

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mfarajewicz profile image
Mirosław Farajewicz

Also another great read in this subject is amazon.com/Shallows-What-Internet-... by Nicholas Carr. It's not focused on developer jobs but touches every aspect of what we do as programmers.

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koladev profile image
Mangabo Kolawole

Everything that exceeds the bounds of moderation has an unstable foundation. - Seneca
I literally identified myself in this quote.
Last year, I tried to learn lot of things and get experience in web development by building projects. I was multitasking everyday every time and it leads me to burnout.
Our brain has been designed to focus and it evolved this way.
I think multitasking is not a human thing so it’s better to focus maximally in three things. Moderation.

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danilapetrova profile image
Danila Petrova Author

I agree! I have had experience with burnout too, and trying to work on too many things all at once played a big part in it.

Some people may be a bit better at task-switching, however, if you have tried it and it brings you stress and a health hazard, it is simply not worth forcing yourself to multitask.

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bradtaniguchi profile image
Brad

Is Multitasking Effective for Your Work as a Developer

No, thinking otherwise is probably disillusion.

For me, multitasking is just me getting distracted. It's one thing to be hyper focused and doing multiple things, but with 1 topic/goal/subject in mind, and another to bounce around.

I used to think multitasking got more done, but I came to realize focused work was more effective.

Its easy to get distracted when the work isn't engaging and I've found that to be the biggest factor.