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An end to multitasking?

Motivation, Organization, Time ManagementEdward KiledjianComment
Image by  John Ragai  used under Creative Commons License

Image by John Ragai used under Creative Commons License

Many years ago, I got to the point where I felt overwhelmed by my jobs and all the tasks I had to perform. After a long search, I learned and implemented the concept of Getting Things Done promoted by David Allen. One of his beliefs is that a person cannot multi-task and he built his entire system around this one concept. He preaches undertaking tasks one at a time sequentially.

Working in the computer industry, I could not easily accept this. After all, my Operating System allowed me to run multiple applications simultaneously for a reason. Right? Well not really... Each computer core (think of a core as an individual brain) can only handle one thing at any given time. Manufacturers have implemented time division techniques to make it look like the computer is processing multiple items per core by slicing the time each process has to fractions of a second. This gives the allusion of multitasking.

The Steeve Jobs alarm

In 2010, during a presentation, Steve Jobs presented features the upcoming version of his Operating System called Lion (to be released mid 2011). The one feature that stuck out for me was full screen application support. In this case, full screen does not mean maximized (like in Windows), it means the apps takes up 100% of your screen real-estate. Whether you like or hate Apple, you have to agree that they spend an unholly amount of money conducting usability research. Why would they implement something that seems backwards? That would prevent you from multi-tasking?

The Research The truth is that when we attempt to multi-task, we become much less effective. Modern cognitive research clearly demonstrates that when people multi-task, they perform less work and miss information. Researchers discovered that re-orienting yourself to the task at hand, after a distraction, takes 10-15 minutes. Quantifiably, performance for multi-taskers can drop as much as 40% along with a marked degradation of memory and creativity.

Distractions There are 2 types of distractions :

  • Active disruptive: Distractions you cannot control like someone walking into your office.
  • Passive disruptive: Distractions you cannot control like n SMS, Email, Instant Message, telephone call, etc

This is the reason why many people are more efficient and effective at home. If re-orientation takes 10-15 minutes and you keep getting distracted by Active disruptive then you experience a severe loss in productivity. Working from home means Active disruptive intrusions completely disappear.

Passive disruptive can be controlled and allow you to decide when to engage with them. You can send calls to voicemail, ignore emails and Instant messages, etc. Ignoring these means you are completely dedicated to the task at hand. Go around and ask people where they go to get their most important and productive work done. I have very rarely seen people says the office.

As technology develops, we are seeing more and more companies add technology that is classified as Passively disruptive and this is a good thing.

Practical How To - Find a Time Management Framework that fits your needs and apply it to your everyday life. All of them will bring stability and control to your chaotic life which will in turn allow you to concentrate on one activity at a time.

  • Remember that most people can only concentrate an a specific task for 18-30 minutes before their mind starts to wander. Determine what your personal threshold is and plan accordingly. You may want to create intervals between your productive times by checking emails, picking up voicemails, etc. These are good times to engage with the disruptive activities (pick up voicemails, check emails, etc).

  • Use the closed door policy. Let people know that there are times when you should not be bothered. Close your office door or post a Do Not Distrub sign on your cubicle entrance. Send calls to voicemail and shutdown Instant Messaging and Email. There is a time for all of these but not when you want to be productive.

  • Learn more efficient note taking techniques like Mind Mapping. This means you will spend less time trying to write down notes and more time concentrating on the discussion at hand. Remember we can only do one thing at a time. When writing, you are not listening.

Now go get productive!