Multitasking: What To Do About It

In the past week or so I’ve heard the following two sentiments from different places:

  1. My son asked me the other day when do we get to spend time doing things that he wants to do and I realized that I’m not spending enough time with him where I’m not multi-tasking.  – Paraphrasing Katilette on YouTube – you can see the video here
  2. I’ve gotten a lot done working from home this week. Projects that have been on the back burner for months are done or almost done! – Paraphrasing my husband, last week he was home recuperating after an outpatient surgery. He didn’t put in his normal hours, but got a lot done in the time he was working.

Undivided attention, that’s what they’re both talking about. With people, whether adults or children, undivided attention tells them that they’re important and creates a closer bond. With projects and tasks, undivided attention means things get done faster.

“Multitasking has been criticized as a hindrance to completing tasks or feeling happiness.” – Wikipedia article on multitasking

For a long time multitasking was a required skill in the workplace. However that’s been changing over the last couple of years. Multiple studies show that multitasking isn’t productive (here, here and here). Tasks completed when multitasking took longer, more mistakes were made and information wasn’t retained in good detail.

So, why do we still insist on multitasking?

  • Just one more thing. You want to get one more thing done while working on something else.

    I’d bet this is what Katilette was doing. I know my husband and I do this quite often and I have to remind myself sometimes to put the computer away. For us, it usually goes like this: my husband gets home from work, we have dinner and then watch a TV show we’ve saved or rewatch a favorite. However, at dinner my husband might be checking various funny websites and while we watch TV I can be found cleaning out my email.

    If the multitasking in this situation isn’t bothering anyone and you’re spending other quality time together with your loved ones – then this might not be a problem. In the case of my husband and I – when there are things we want to talk about or stories about our day we want to share, the distractions are automatically put way – it’s our (generally) unspoken agreement.

    However, review this regularly, you don’t want to look up from the computer screen one day and realize you haven’t had a decent conversation with your family for a week or two. Set aside some time each week, or day, to have uninterrupted quality time with your family.

  • Interruptions. Sometimes multitasking is the result of the people around us. Someone wants a quick answer to something or to share a quick story and our focus is changed, even if only for a couple minutes.

    I’d bet this was why my husband was happy to get those projects done when he was at home last week. There’s not a lot of people in his office, but it’s a fairly open setup that makes it easy to share whatever is on your mind without getting up (that’s probably one of the reason’s he likes working there – his co-workers are easy to access and chat with). So, when he was at home he knew he could have uninterrupted time to complete those projects.

    If interruptions are a problem ask the person if the question can wait 15 minutes, or whatever gives you time to finish your thought or complete the project. Don’t forget to follow up with them if they don’t come by again or go and see them when you have a natural breaking point.

  • Avoiding an unwanted or stressful task. You sit down to work on something that you don’t really want to do, for whatever reason, and then decide to check your email or do this other quick task that popped into your head.

    I occasionally find myself doing this. When I notice it, I set a timer and work until it goes off, then I can do something else if I want or take a break, even if the task isn’t done.

    Another thing you can do is decide another way you want to feel about the task. Then focus on that new feeling instead of the stress (or maybe annoyance) you were feeling. I did this the other day. There was a task I was dreading to do because it was hard (translation: outside my comfort zone). Instead I told myself that the task was simple and focused on how it feels to do simple tasks. A half hour later the task was done and in the past this same task has taken me over an hour.

  • Boredom. You’re simply bored with what you’re doing and want a distraction.

    When I was a programmer I’d multitask when waiting for a process to finish. So, while I was waiting I’d check email or work on something else. The problem I generally had was the process had been finished for at least five minutes (if not more) by the time I got around to checking it. In some cases, not a big deal, but generally someone was waiting for the results.

    The best way I found to deal with this one was either sit there and wait or take the opportunity to do something that I could really quickly do and not get sidetracked. The problem with checking email in this situation is I would come across something that needed a thoughtful or researched response. Sometimes I’d take the opportunity to walk away from my desk for a moment for whatever quick excuse I could think of (but not to chat with someone – I would easily be away from my desk a bit too long).

One last point, according to this article all the media multitasking we do (doing any combination of texting, instant messaging, checking email, browsing the internet, chatting, watching TV and trying to get something else done) causes us to be easily distracted. We’ve essentially trained our minds to check our email or phone every 10 minutes (or less!) – we’ve trained ourselves to look for or create interruptions!

So, while I don’t think all forms of multitasking are bad, you want to consciously choose to multitask and not make it what you do everywhere.

Why do you multitask? What are you multitasking?