Mondays are productivity days at SimpleProductivity blog.
The method of focusing multiple things at a time is called multitasking. The theory is that multitasking allows you to do more than one thing at a time.
Sounds like the perfect answer to productivity woes, doesn’t it? This week I am going to focus on multitasking and how it actually complicates our lives and makes us less productive.
As a programmer, I learned many years ago that computers don’t truly multitask. They split their processing capability between all the things that are requested at a given point.
If you open a huge spreadsheet and then launch a big file in a word processor, then send an email while you are waiting for the sheet to load, the overall speed of the computer is slowed down as the processor swaps between the simultaneous requests. If you wait and allow the computer to complete one task before starting another, everything actually runs faster overall. [Note: I am referring to older computers, with single processors; modern computers with multiple processors and tons of memory do not show this as readily, although they can be loaded to demonstrate this behavior.]
I think our brains are very much the same way.
If we have multiple things that require our attention, the best we can do is to slice our attention up and give partial attention to everything. As we shift between the tasks, part of our brain is occupied with the shift itself, causing a lag. This lag time is dependent on the person, and also on the complexity of the tasks at hand. It takes more time for our brain to wrap itself around detailed complex tasks than it does around simpler tasks.
The difference between a computer switching tasks and the human brain switching tasks is that the computer circuits are more adept at handling the change, and the circuits are not dependent on biological factors such as fatigue, hydration and nutrition.
Over at Life Optimizer, an article examines this very thing. It has been shown that it is faster to process things one at a time than to try and multitask the items, and the suggestion put forth that programmers should not be asked to do more than one thing at once.
Donald asks if the condition applies to our lives: “Is it always better to do one thing until it completes before moving to the next thing ?” (sic) Given the evidence, it is probably faster to process things sequentially, and will result in less mental stress as well as yielding a better end result.
I think there is a bit more to it. If your task at hand is to write a novel, it would be impossible for you to sit down and write that novel without doing anything else in the meantime. Life doesn’t allow for single processing for extended periods of time.
At the same time, if I am handed a dozen things to do at once, I can feel my brain get bogged down as I try and keep track of where everything is. The more I try to do at a given time, the more stress I feel, the more my energy goes down, and the more likely I am to make mistakes. It is the quickest way I know to go from feeling calm and peaceful to being harried and stressed out. By simplifying what I am doing at any one time and focusing on the task at hand, I can hang on to the inner core of serenity much longer.
There is a bit more to it, though. Extended working on a single item is not always possible or desirable; multitasking at a rapid rate is harmful. There must be a middle point where we can focus on a task for a set period of time, then move onto another task without suffering too much from the lag of the brain shift, yet remain calm and productive.
Let me know what you think. Are you a single-tasking? Multi-tasker? A combination? Why? Does it depend on what you are doing?