Multi-tasking is as bad as procrastination

Deep down, we all know it. Multi-tasking is bad for productivity. I’ve known for quite a while that I get less done when I’m multi-tasking, but I can’t get out of the habit of having half a dozen (or more) applications and windows open at once. As a minimum, I usually have instant messenger, Twitter, e-mail, several apps and at least two web browsers with tens of tabs all open at once. All of this screams for my attention.

But like every other geek I know, I’d like to think that I can multi-task. I’d like to believe that I can post an update to Twitter at the same time as I am holding an instant message conversation, simultaneously to writing a blog post or a report for a client. It’s a seductive idea and one that has gained a lot of currency over recent years. Technology, we are told, allows us to do many things at once more quickly and effectively than we ever could before. It seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that this might not be true, but the other day I read in the New Scientist that it’s just not possible to multitask, not really.

Alison Motluk says in How many things can you do at once? (requires subscription) that the only tasks that you can do at the same time are very simple stimulus and response tasks, such as seeing a shape and hitting a button or hearing a sound and saying something. Even these simple tasks need training to complete successfully simultaneously. Most of us can’t simultaneously see a shape, hit a button, hear a sound, and say something very easily. Think how much harder it is to genuinely multitask, to a hold three conversations, say on Twitter, IM and e-mail, at once whilst trying to focus on writing original prose and listening to music or a podcast.

Developing from what Motluk writes, I think that what we are really doing is splitting up tasks into tiny pieces which we then interleave one with another. Is it really any wonder that multi-tasking slows us down? Every time you swap from one task to the next you have to shift context, you have to recall what it was that you were doing or saying, and then you have to take your tiny action before swapping context back to what you were doing previously. If you said, ‘Okay, I’m going to split every task up into small five second chunks and in between each chunk I’m going to stand up and sit down again’, you wouldn’t for a second be able to deceive yourself into thinking that that would make you more efficient. But that’s effectively what we’re doing when we’re trying to multitask. The fact that we’re interleaving tiny junks of work with each other instead of standing up doesn’t make any difference – we’re still slowing ourselves down.

I remember once reading in a book of aphorisms that ‘The best way to get many things done at once is to do one thing at a time’. From what I’ve read in the New Scientist there now seems to be some evidence that this is actually the case, that the best way to multi-task really is to do one thing at once.

I’m not sure that this is really new news, though. Who, deep down, hasn’t pretty much known that multi-tasking is a con? We’ve known for years about the state of flow, where you are so entranced by what you are doing that each next action comes almost effortlessly, and it seems pretty obvious that if you are constantly interrupting yourself you cannot enter a state of flow. The problem I have is not in recognising that multi-tasking is a bad idea, but in breaking the multi-tasking habit. I’ve been fooling myself into thinking that I can multi-task for so long now that I have slipped into some really bad habits which I desperately need to break if I am to really get done some of the big projects that I want to work on this year.

One tool I’ve started using to help me focus is Think, Mac software which blocks out all the other apps you have open with a black screen, allowing you to focus only on the one application you have chosen to bring to front and centre. It sort of works for me, but doesn’t really go far enough, because it’s easy enough for me just to alt-tab to another application at any time I want. It does stop me seeing if another email or Twitter message has arrived, but I can achieve that goal just as easily by – oh, the horror! – closing those tabs in my browser.

But I wonder if the solution to my focusing problem lies elsewhere.

Last week, my friend Stephanie came to stay and she was keen to show me how she had set up Dragon NaturallySpeaking – speech-to-text software – on her Mac, (using Parallels because Dragon is sadly Windows-only). I had a bit of a play with it, as it’s been quite a long time since I’ve tried any dictation software, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it is. With only 20 minutes’ training, it was fairly accurately transcribing what I was saying. In fact, the first draft of this blog post was dictated with it.

Whilst I was dictating, I had a bit of a mini-epiphany. Despite having all the usual applications and websites open that haunt me on a daily basis, I was much more tightly focused on what I was doing. Because I was speaking aloud and not writing, I found I wasn’t spending half as much time looking at the computer screen as usual – instead, I was gazing off into the middle distance, scrutinising the door jam or staring at the ceiling. I only noticed that there were Twitter messages or IMs to read when I glanced back at the screen. Even though I felt awkward dictating, I got closer to a state of actual concentration than I have in a goodly long time.

It wasn’t just where my eyes fell that made me not take so much notice of Twitter and IM. It was also the fact that in order to react to Twitter I have to switch output modes from speech to text, and I felt reluctant to do that. Normally the majority of what I am doing is reading and typing, and because that accounts for about 90% of my working day, it feels as if everything I do that involves reading and writing is basically the same task. No matter that each is an individual action, they all sort of blur into one because they are the same type of action. But moving from a speech-based task to a text-based task seemed like more of an effort than moving between two text-based ones, so it was easier just to ignore the text-based task until the speech-based one was finished. In effect, dictating made it easier to ignore the things that usually distract me.

I’m going to get Parallels and Dragon NaturallySpeaking installed on my Mac so that I can do a little bit more of dictation and see how I take to it. The software has evolved amazingly since I last used it in 2000 – it’s incredibly fluid now, even with a minimal amount of training – but it will be interesting to see how it affects my style. I’ve noticed in editing the draft for this post that I produced in Dragon that my style was really very different, but as I get used to dictation perhaps that would normalise back to my usual way of writing.
Might this be a new way of helping me to focus on written tasks that are currently proving too easy to procrastinate? Task like… dare I say it… writing a book? I’ve been saying to ages that I want to write more blog posts and write a book, but somehow I seem to waste hours and hours in tiny five second chunks spread out over the day, in Twitter, IM or e-mail. Maybe dictation is a way for me to focus on what really needs to be done.

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