Multitasking. Good or Bad?

One thing we’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately is multitasking and it’s effects on your productivity. There’s a fair bit of research that basically says that the human brain just isn’t terribly well optimized for doing more than one thing at the same time. Unfortunately, it’s often not something that seems like much of a choice. So many things have a “right now” urgency and seem to require immediate attention. Additionally, many people report that they feel more productive when doing several things at once.

We’re interested in figuring this out for ourselves, with our own data. We’re playing around with some different ways to look at RescueTime data to get a better handle on it, and we’re seeing some things that look pretty interesting. We’re still trying to figure out a “how much are you multitasking?” metric, but what we have so far suggests that every person on our team is significantly more productive when they focus more on a single task, rather than trying to juggle. While we’re not quite ready to release anything yet, we do want to open up a discussion around it.

What do you think? Is multi-tasking an essential skill that today’s knowledge workers must master? Or is it just a way to feel busier?


11 Comments on “Multitasking. Good or Bad?”

  1. Daniel R. says:

    The perception seems to be that multi-tasking makes us more responsive and productive, however I believe it is a drain on our creativity and long term planning. I’ll be very interested in the metrics you expose as this type of question is one I have been interested in for some time.

  2. j O'Connor says:

    Mulititasking is just. Way that we think we are meeting the demands of our busy lives. However I agree with the assessment that productivity is higher when focusing on one task at. Timr.

  3. sirkeystone says:

    As a writer who also plays music, is an artist and reads a lot, I have found that I am more productive when I don’t multi-task more than a certain type of task. When writing, I set a timer and stop, when editing I set a timer and stop. I haven’t been doing this long, but it has definitely helped progress.

  4. digitalspyders says:

    Two weeks ago, feeling like I was inefficient, I took a time management course to spruce up my habits. One thing touched on was multi tasking, which they debunked as, “task switching.” It takes on average 75% longer to do a task when doing multiple things and the quality of work suffers greatly. Also it takes 15 minutes to refocus on a task once interrupted at the same level prior to interruption. I also remember reading a Microsoft study that also concluded the same. I turned off all social media and instant messengers and doubled my efficiency, which gave me an extra 10 hours of free time per week. Also should mention I turned off instant notification of email on my PC and smart phone and check on regular scheduled periods.

  5. Personally, I am most productive when I am multi tasking, but how that fits into the statistics is another question. I think it depends upon the individual. We do not create by a set of rules or at least it is not really creative in my opinion to do so.

  6. Sarai says:

    Definitely don’t think that multitasking is the way to go. Efficiency goes hand in hand with uninterrupted focus, in my opinion – how else can you “give” yourself to something 100%? Having said that, I am single, have always lived alone and have no children (I’m female, in case you wonder why I bring that up) and nearly 30 – so there are definitely background factors at work. I’ll be keen to find out what it will be like when I live with someone else or end up in a relationship.

    Mini-focusing might also be a skill that people develop in order to cope with juggling several activities – in that they may be learning to focus for very brief, uninterrupted periods. However, even in that case, they would be sacrificing efficiency for the ability to switch between tasks, in my opinion. That’s my medical perspective coming in there too 🙂

  7. Perfe says:

    Hi,
    Multitasking as model of work is somehow a consequence of using computer O.S. as models of our minds. As they can work that way, so we should. But… although our mind is indeed capable of concurrent activities with big success rates, there is an executive component that works better by serializing activities and exerting serial attention, control and scheduling. Cognitive scientists have done a lot of research on that. There are interesting discussions about the issue in the book “The shallows: what Internet is making to our brains”, though evidence is still sparse or contradictory. My view is that multitasking is good when you can launch/start several tasks at the same time and can leave them in unattended mode for hours/days. If your attention has to be shifted every X minutes then you are overloading or misusing your cognitive system.
    As for RescueTime functionalities, I think it would be good to get some statistics on the “continuous time” that you have spent with an application and/or document. Additionally, the average shifts from one to another one would also be informative. Sometimes shifting between 2-5 different applications happens with some temporal rhythm which, in that case meanse that you are focused even though that shift. Therefore some analysis on temporal patterns of shifting is needed in order to decide if you are focused or wandering around.

  8. Katie Akers says:

    I am a multitasker but often I feel I multitask as creative avoidance and due to lack of focus. I watch my counter parts who are minimal multitaskers and feel many times they actually complete more activities than I personally complete although I have a lot of balls in the air. Multi-tasking should be evaluated and the results be measurable in order to determine the effectiveness of that skill.

  9. As far as I’m concerned, Multitasking is toxic.

    It goes against most of the Getting Things Done core concepts, and tends to be employed when people aren’t really sure of the next action.

    I wrote about this in more detail a while back — http://blog.pmrobot.com/2011/09/multitasking-is-toxic.html

  10. Jeremy Hull says:

    I would think you can utilize application usages (activities) with short dwell times to form clusters of activities which may make up a workflow. Many of our activities follow the same patterns. When debugging I use the same tools each time, and my switching between windows is probably a nice pattern, perhaps with some other things thrown in, which can be useful keys as well. If I switch to email for more than 30? seconds, then I am switching tasks, but if it’s less, I am scanning for what’s next, or waiting for a build, which would be in the activity data as well. If email breaks my pattern of activity (debugging or coding, etc), then I might flag that as a productivity killer, as it stopped really productive work and may have me now in another workflow which is not as productive. The data already collected is sufficient to do much more temporal pattern analysis.

  11. Nikolay says:

    In RescueTime I’ve always lacked a report such as “Time Usage Visualization repor” (http://tracker.aklabs.com/images/xp/reptimeu.png) of the “Smart WorkTime Tracker” (http://tracker.aklabs.com/index.php). Reminiscent of defragmentation in Windows XP.