The Dark Side of Multitasking


iStock_000008160797XSmall Are you suffering from the effects of continuous partial attention?

While reading an article from 4 Hour Workweek author Tim Ferris, I was struck by how pervasive multitasking has become in our culture and how much damage it is most likely doing to our personal productivity if not our sanity.

Given my background in computer programming I already know that while multitasking is a cool thing for computers it also makes them less efficient. 

Every program that you have running on your PC gets a slice of the available CPU resources.  Even if the program isn’t doing anything, the operating system must do something called a context switch to move over to the program just to find out that has nothing to do.  With only a word processor open, twitter, and a couple of web pages open, this probably has little impact on your computer’s response.  If you’re processing with a video editor or if you’re trying to play game you may start to notice the effects of your computer not paying enough attention to the window on which you happen to be focused.

Even with a computer multitasking has an impact on performance.

What about you?

There are instances where multitasking is both productive and useful.  If you’re a cook at Denny’s, multitasking gives you the ability to make sure that different things that go on a plate are cooked it the same time.

For people known as knowledge workers (a term coined by Peter Drucker), even passive multitasking is the punch line to a very cruel and counterintuitive joke. Trying to write a report for your project while thinking about the groceries you want to pick has an impact on your ability to mentally process efficiently and effectively.

Every time I meet someone who tells me that they’re good multitasking I just roll my eyes. 

Myself included, people rarely are able to see the lack of results achieved by the attempt a multitasking. 

Continuous partial attention is the effect that our modern information culture is having on our brains.  Trying to write an article while answering instant messages are receiving calls and text messages on your iPhone is a recipe for a mediocre article.

The effects of continuous partial attention are certainly present in the realm of social media where we’re glancing at Twitter, answering instant messages and scanning Facebook updates.

It’s very easy to bleed out when you’re being stabbed by 1,000 knives.

What’s the solution? I’ve found that a simple oven timer help me boost productivity by working for a focused 50 minutes, followed by a 10 minute break (also timed) throughout the day. At home, my Blackberry is on silent when I’m working (silent, not vibrate) and I no longer have my email open in a window when I’m working. Small steps, but effective for me.

What’s your solution? Have you taken steps to control the multitasking beast in your life?

1 Comment

  1. Dr Wright on May 19, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    I really try NOT to multi-task. Using the Action machine helps me focus a lot

    Dr Wright
    The WRight Place TV Show

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