The Myth of Multitasking

The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done is a must-read if you’re one of those people who still thinks that multitasking is good or useful.  Even if you know multitasking isn’t efficient, it can still be a temptation to engage in it, especially with the ability to have devices on and multiple windows open all the time.

The Myth of Multitasking, which takes the form of a dialog between a productivity coach and a CEO (that might annoy some people, but it’s a fast read so you might be able to get past the gimmick of the framework), points out that multitasking is actually impossible, even for computers.  If you’re not convinced, check the book out from the library and try the diagnostic.  It will change your mind, I guarantee.

Instead of multitasking, we’re actually switchtasking.  Every time we switch tasks, we lose time.  Even when it’s an almost indiscernible switch, it costs us.  And it’s rarely indiscernible.  No matter how good you think you are at it, and no matter what tricks you use, you will always be more efficient if you quit trying to multitask.  The “switching costs” as we move between tasks mount up to serious inefficiency, and, as the book points out, the more hats you wear, the more you’re tempted to switchtask and the more inefficient you can become.  Worse, the costs of switchtasking are often more than just lost productivity, they can also involve lost relationships as we interact with people and family members without giving them our full attention.

Given the nature of my work, plus the fact that I homeschool so my kids are home all day, I have a tendency to toggle back and forth between tasks constantly.  Sometimes I think it’s great that life and work and school all run together in my days, but I’m often stressed out by the constant feeling of interruption.  I knew it was a problem, but hadn’t made a compelling case to myself for following through on my need to focus.

Certain things are ok to do together.  The book calls these “background tasks.”  For example, I know I’m less efficient at ironing while I watch Downton Abbey, but it’s an acceptable loss.  However, when neither task can really be deemed background–like school or work or having a conversation with a family member–it’s counterproductive to combine them.

I’ve read before about how inefficient multitasking is, and have been working toward defining set times for work and school and not melding them, but this book gave me a renewed impetus to keep working in that direction, as well as a better word–switchtasking–that reminds me why it’s not a good idea to try to do too many things at once.

How do you avoid the temptation to multitask?


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