We have all heard a lot about multi-tasking in the press, about how it helps companies to be agile, or how it kills productivity.
We have been bombarded with endless discourse on how women are better at multitasking than men. There are countless nonsense articles covering how the new generation of young workers today are more ably suited to multitasking because that is what they grew up with.
And all I can say to any of this is “Bullshit!”
Multitasking does not increase your efficiency. You are one person and multitasking slows you down and increases the mistakes that you make. You might think you are being more efficient when you have ten or twenty tasks all being taken care of simultaneously but you are not. It is plain and simple, you are mistaking activity for productivity.
When I read a report in the popular press that is a distilled version of some study done on efficiency or multitasking or gender differences in working I very often go and read the original study (the benefits of having a friendly professional research librarian available to me). What I find is that the studies very frequently do not cover the kinds of tasks you find in the modern workplace.
When studying the multitasking capabilities of teenagers about to enter the workforce the types of activities the researchers focused on were short-term tasks requiring very little deep concentration. The types of tasks studied covered rote memorization and routine activities or how fast someone can respond to an artificial trigger event, as though they were a properly trained, Pavlovian animal.
Teenagers that were studied were just as distracted by chat windows and e-mail clients and browser windows as any forty-something seasoned professional who does the same sorts of activities at the workplace on a daily basis. The types of activities showing that women were more capable at multitasking than men were comically flawed.
I believe, based on the research papers I have read, that some women, on average, are marginally better than men at multitasking when undertaking menial, rote, manual labour. The studies I collected and read were fundamentally flawed with so many questions unanswered or results glossed over that anybody using them as citations or for business strategy might as well be throwing darts at the wall.
I recommend that you ignore the “positive aspect studies” that promote multitasking. Multitasking does not make you more efficient. Multitasking decreases your efficiency significantly.
If you are attempting to justify multitasking as making you more efficient, or promoting your organisation as "creative, dynamic and requiring multitasking" you are throwing away money and time and other valuable resources believing a lie.
In a computer system, you might be running several dozen pieces of application software simultaneously. This is called multitasking. When the computer needs to switch from one application to another, it undergoes what is called a context switch. This context switch takes time to perform as the data for the current application is moved off to some other memory location and the data for the new application replaces it.
The same context switching happens in your brain, some people are faster at context switching than others, but context switching in an environment that requires long periods of dedicated mental processing takes a huge toll on your productive output, requiring lengthy "warm up" periods. It is why needless interruptions also destroy your productivity. You are jarred out of your flow, or in multitasking, never actually get in to it in the first place. Complex tasks require dedicated time allocation from you if you want to see the greatest gains.
Even simple physical activities require this context switching. If you are at the gym and working out, you cannot suddenly context switch in to practicing the piano for a few minutes, answering a quick e-mail, and then switch back to working out, without it affecting your performance and concentration. This holds true for creating art, writing, programming, repairing a computer, or any one of a myriad of tasks and activities I could mention that people in an office environment need to perform.
There are a small class of tasks that do work just fine for multitasking, talking on the phone and doodling, taking a shower and singing at the same time, or cooking a complex meal that is filled many dozens of micro-tasks, but for most activities and tasks you will undertake, context switching and multitasking is to be avoided at all costs. Multitasking is good for only one thing, multiple distractions.
Block out your time, pick the tasks that you need to work on during that time, and concentrate wholly on the task at hand. If the task is too big to take care of in a single sitting, such as an extended project, break it up in to manageable chunks. There are so many simple ways you can boost your personal productivity that will make you super-productive compared to your peers that it still constantly amazes me that people do not employ them.