Multitasking is Unproductive

Want to be more productive? Stop multitasking. The concept of multitasking sounds great in principle but in reality it fails miserably. Being able to to perform multiple tasks simultaneously makes you sound like some fantastic work guru who whizzes through tasks at the speed of light, but often the real result is just sub-standard performance, and failure to keep up with all the tasks. The complete opposite of what it is supposed to do.

I am not pretending to be holier-than-thou, because I too suffer from trying to multitask my day to fit more in. It is a hard habit to break. In fact, my attempt to multitask is the precise reason why I have not written here in the last few days.

So far this week I have, written a proposal for a consulting job, developed the new version of the 16 Threads website, anlaysed some sports markets, and worked on my pet coding project which is an automated betting project that should generate long-term profits. It has been chaos and I am suffering because of it.

The Multitasking Impact

I am tired, I am fatigued, and I am a little sick. I am grumpy, I am negative and and I blame multitasking!

I have been pushing myself to meet deadlines, often imposed by myself, because I set some high goals in terms of my personal productivity. It started well, filled with motivation as I made significant progress on all projects. I was knocking out code, producing graphics and just generally flying along, multitasking in style.

But the problem is that the initial high wears off. When I got past the inital stages of the projects where things flowed quickly and smoothly I entered the treacherous waters of fiddly work and the smaller, more annoying tasks. On their own, these tasks can be dangerous enough to anyone, threatening to kill productivity but when you run several projects concurrently, these tasks pile up and sometimes it just feels like too much.

I realised my error when I found myself sitting in front of my computer doing nothing. I had two different projects open and the notepad for another beside me, yet I was doing nothing. I had hit the multitasking wall.

The Multitasking Wall

The multitasking wall comes about when each of the tasks you are running become ust the slightest bit more complex than normal. And this is the main problem with multitasking.

Sure if you are doing simple and repetitive (i.e. boring) tasks then you may be able to multitask successfully. But when you start adding complexity and require in-depth thought into the mix the problem with multitasking is suddenly exposed.

Multitasking does not double or triple your productivity. It just spreads your focus among the multiple tasks. If you consider your maximal focus and productivity as 100% then multitasking 2 tasks just means you only give each task 50% focus. So instead of devoting yourself to being awesome at one specific task you are just being mediocre at multiple tasks.

When those tasks are simple 50% is often fine. But when those tasks require complex thought patterns this reduction in your skills is what kills your productivity. You have essentially halved your ability to think, apply the processes, and make the correct decisions. And that is before you consider the "tax" of switching gears.

Switching Gears

Switching gears is what your brain does when you change quickly from one task to another. It has to change context, focusing on the new subject and dredging up past information that it might need to use as a reference. This all takes time, and the more complex the new task is the longer it will take.

This time is just wasting your time. It is "taxed" from your possible productive time, leaving you with less time to complete your multiple tasks. So not only do you end up doing a half-arsed job when you multitask but you end up losing precious time too. This just results in more pressure to complete the tasks which normally means doing an even worse job.

The Answer

The answer is simple - one task at a time. Work on a single task until completion, ignoring all interruptions, other work, and that little itch to be a "go-getter multitasker". Let yourself get stuck into your task with all of your focus and you will be amazed at the productivity you can produce. And when that single task is finished you move on to the next most important task on your list. Simple.

Maybe not. Even if you try to be rigid in your single-tasking method you will fall back into multitasking, just like I did this week. In a society with email, mobile phones, twitter, facebook (and so on forever) everyone sees to pride themselves on juggling everything at once. Like it is a badge of honor. It's not.

Reject multitasking. Accept single-tasking.