The Multitasking Myth

So, what's the fastest way to saturate yourself with tasks? Trying to handle too many of them at once. Many people think they are good at multitasking, but your bandwidth remains unchanged. You may think you have enough to share between a few light tasks, but consider what happens when you multitask:

Cleaning the kitchen

To illustrate, lets consider the tasks you need to do when cleaning the kitchen:

  • Wipe countertops

  • Rinse dishes and load into dishwasher

  • Handwash delicate dishes

  • Wipe down sink

  • Scrub and wipe stovetop

  • Sweep and mop floor

Ok, so in one hand you'll hand a broom, and in the other you'll have a cloth to wipe the counters, and with your right foot you'll mop the floor, and then just use your left to balance, right? No, that would be silly (but if you do, I'm impressed). You prioritize what tasks need to happen, and complete them one at a time. You can't wipe down the sink until the dishes are done, so you do the dishes first. You can't sweep the floors while you're doing the dishes, so you figure which one should happen first and do that. Rethinking this, our to-do list should look more like:

  1. Rinse dishes and load into dishwasher

  2. Handwash delicate dishes

  3. Wipe out sink

  4. Scrub and wipe stovetop

  5. Wipe countertops

  6. Sweep and mop floor

Notice the numbers. Before step 2, we need to finish step 1. Before step 3, we need to finish step 2.

How does this relate to me?

Your day-to-day in the IT industry should be planned exactly the same as planning your kitchen tidying. Can you check your emails and listen to your voicemails at the same time? Can you diagnose a computer while entering time entry notes? No, those need to happen one at a time to give each proper attention.

But what if you already multitask? Well, you probably aren't. Lets us the example of checking your emails while catching up on voicemails, which you may have done before. Can you reasonably comprehend what is being said verbally while reading an entirely separate set of words? Probably not. What you're likely doing is reading a bit of the email, rapidly switching to listening to the voicemail audio, and then switching back to the email, over and over again in small slices. But uh-oh, when your attention shifted to the email, you missed a key bit of that voicemail audio. And when switching back to reading that email, the tiny processing hit when swapping to a new task makes you miss comprehension on a key element too.

This isn't just anecdotal, there's several studies that show not only is it very difficult for humans to effectively multitask but there is also a measurable cognitive "cost" to switching tasks. In a paper on task switching, researchers found a delay in processing up to 500ms when starting a new task, plus a "residual" cost at the end of that task. In another study, it was found that when participants tried to tackle both a language comprehension task and a spatial task simultaneously, the brain regions responsible for both tasks showed decreased activation. In addition to the cost from switching tasks alone, trying to perform multiple tasks at once can lead to a competition for mental resources.

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