In a letter written to his son in the 1740s, British statesman and diplomat Lord Chesterfield wrote that “there is enough time for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not enough time in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”
The man had a point. Multitasking is a terrible idea. Yet many of us feel compelled to multitask, whether that's replying to an email while fixing a bug in your code or reading JIRA issues while talking to a colleague.
We multitask because we feel it makes us faster and more efficient in today's complex, stressful, ever-changing environment. The proliferation of smartphones, laptops, and other technological devices has never made it easier to multitask either.
There are two main ways to define multitasking:
- Dealing with more than one task at the same time.
- Rapidly switching from one task to another.
For the purpose of this article, we define multitasking as definition number two, because the brain works in such a way that it cannot focus on two things at the same time. It just switches so rapidly back and forth that we think we're doing two things simultaneously.
Multitasking is a bad idea because it significantly worsens your performance when compared to sequential execution. The cognitive cost of switching tasks and remembering the context and requirements of a particular task are much higher than the supposed benefits you get doing multiple tasks at once.
In addition, heavy multitaskers are worse at filtering out irrelevant information than light multitaskers and those who don't multitask. Heavy multitaskers are slower at completing a task because they struggle to ignore the things they don't need to complete it.
What's worse, a study from Utah University showed that those who think they're good at multitasking are actually worse at it than those who think they're not. So if you believe you're an above-average multitasker and none of the above and below applies to you, there's a high chance you're actually the worst student in class.
Multitasking also makes it harder to build genuine relationships. This makes sense: it's harder to connect with someone who's also on their phone, writing an email, doing anything else. Multitasking lowers your EQ because you're not giving the other person your undivided attention.
All this leads to the conclusion that multitasking makes you slower instead of faster. If you want to get more things done, do one thing at a time.
The key lesson of this article is that you should not juggle between tasks , in particular for complex tasks and when you think you're good at multitasking. Commit to one task at a time, one after the other.
The fewer interruptions, the easier this becomes. That's why it's a good idea to put away or turn off distracting factors, such as any notifications. There's little reason to open Slack while you're writing code.
In addition, having a schedule helps. It lowers the cost of switching between tasks, because you'll have to think less about what you need to do next. Schedule a time for distracting tasks like checking email and social media. This doesn't need to be particularly formal or strict. Even a mental map of what you'll do next will help.
All the above being said, there is a form of multitasking that is relatively harmless. It's when the nature of the tasks differ: active-primary versus passive-secondary. For example, programming while listening to background music or running while listening to an ebook.
We all feel these types of tasks gel well together, because we have to pay almost no attention to at least one of them. They're so automatic we would hardly even call them "tasks". However, multiple tasks that each require a little bit of your attention should always be done in sequence instead of simultaneous.
Are you a multitasker? Do you think it makes you faster? Let me by replying below 👇