Multitasking is a Lie

Does instant messaging (IM), email, and social media make us more productive?  Of course they do, right?  …  Well, the real answer is ‘no’ (what would be the point of this post otherwise?:).  As a Community Manager for two open-source projects I reach out and ‘connect’ with people as part of my job.   In doing so I use Twitter, mailing lists, IRC, and discussion forums almost constantly, but what about people who aren’t tasked with making connections and building community?  Is it good for them?  What about the secretary whose Facebook page is constantly updated throughout the day or the sales guy who updates his followers minute by minute?  Are they as productive as they should be or are they just awesome multi-taskers? Let’s look at a simple fact …

The human mind does not process information in parallel (you may want to go back and read that again).  It just can’t be done.  The Myth of Multitasking by Dave Crenshaw.  In his book he uses a simple example that is very convincing.  Simply take a sheet of paper and draw a line across the page.  Above of the line you will write the alphabet, below it the numbers 1 to 26.  The kicker is that you write one letter and then one number, so you’d write ‘A’ above the line and ‘1′ below the line, then you’d write ‘B’ above the line and ‘2′ below the line, oscillating back and forth until done.  Time this exercise.  Next, time yourself writing just the alphabet and then just the numbers 1 to 26 in serial without switching back and forth.  If you’re like most people you’ll find that it takes about twice as long to do the first exercise as it does the second.  So think about that.  You did the same amount of work in both cases but it took you twice as long.  The only difference was context switching.  Unfortunately, context switching has become the “norm” in today’s offices.

People forget that multitasking isn’t about processing information in parallel, which we just proved was impossible.  Multitasking originally meant juggling or managing multiple tasks during a given period of time, not at the same time.  Somehow the definition was hijacked to mean something more akin to parallel processing.  Now people brag about how many conversations they can carry on at once, but based on what we now know, what they’re really saying is “Look at me, I’m getting less work done”.  Probably something you don’t want your boss to know :).

The other thing to remember is that every communication channel has it’s own place and purpose in the world and changing conventions can be unproductive.  Email was born to replace memos and letters.  No one expected you to reply to a memo or letter within minutes of it being issued.  Your memos would gather in your mailbox and you’d pick them up once a day and work through the replies, just like you still pick up your mail once a day from the Post Office.  What’s changed is the use paradigm and expectations.  Now in this world of cell phones and computers that has people linked in everywhere, all the time, we expect immediate responses to our emails. It’s just not realistic.

Similarly, IM changed too.  Originally, it was a social activity done during off-hours.  You would log on to AIM from home when you were actually AVAILABLE and chat with your friends.  Now it’s moved into the workplace, but in doing so kept many of it’s conventions from when it was used at home, such as the default status of “Available”.  The same goes for Twitter.  What used to be an extracurricular activity has suddenly found it’s way onto workplace desktops.  Don’t get me wrong, all these things are useful tools in the right situation, but they need to find a productive place on our desks without being distracting.  NOTE TO SELF:  It’s ironic that I’ll be pimping this via Twitter? 

In 1971 the economist Herbert A. Simon wrote “What information consumes is rather obvious: It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”  Sage wisdom, but how do you apply it today without seeming like a Technophobe and dropping “off the grid”.   One thing we can do is remember that newer technologies may have evolved under social circumstances and not business ones.  This means the conventions which were adopted may be perfectly okay at home, but detrimental to the “Productive Desktop”.

Here are a few other tips to reclaim some of your productivity…

Remember when we where in school and had to write all those tedious papers.  Our teachers taught us to use outlines to organize our objectives and ideas.  We need to revisit that same strategy now.  Before logging on to your computer in the morning or after lunch, simply write down what your goals for the next few hours are and what tasks need to get done.  The point here is to set mini-goals for yourself and make sure you understand the steps necessary to achieve those goals.

The next thing on my list may surprise some, Internet Relay Chat (or just chat).  Chat has been around since the dawn of the Internet but evolved mostly in technical communities.  Chat has a different usage paradigm than the “ever distracting” IM.  It’s a communal technology which means its goal is to gather users with similar interests together into a real-time forum.  Once together they can ask questions of the entire group and not specific users.  This means users of the group can monitor the room at their own pace and ask or answer questions to a group of participants.  The goal of IRC is not to query specific users but give participants a forum in which many people are participating simultaneously which reduces the burden on a single user.  Open-source projects use chat all the time but it hasn’t been widely adopted in the business community which is a real shame given it’s advantages over IM.

The thing about IM is that it’s a direct connection to your attention especially since most users maintain the default status of ‘Available’ (that’s just asking for trouble).  I’d say my biggest distracter is currently IM when my status is ‘Available’, but what can you do?  During those periods when you know you need to focus, simply set your IM status to “Do Not Disturb”.  People will rarely bother you if your status is something other than “Available”.

Another great tip for regaining productivity is to only check for email, RSS, or Twitter updates every so often.  Set aside some amount of time in the morning and in the afternoon to go through your email and feed updates.  You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done when your email or RSS icon isn’t flashing at you constantly.

There are several ways to try to take back your life and I’ve only covered but a few here.   The key is to be proactive and manage technology and information the way you manage everything else in your life.  Too much of anything (even a good thing) is often bad.

If you are looking for some good books to read I’d suggest Getting Things Done by David Allen and theMyth of Multitasking by Dave Crenshaw.