The myth of multitasking: How doing it all gets nothing done

Multitasking has killed my productivity. At this moment, on this computer, I have:

    • Five open browser windows with a total of 59 open tabs (in Safari)
    • 79 open text documents (in BBEdit) — I am not joking
  • 14 open images (in Photoshop)
  • 55 unread messages in my mailbox (and 48 additional unread Get Rich Slowly comments)
  • Three open chat sessions
  • Seven open word processing documents (in Microsoft Word)
  • And ten other open applications

That's 227 discrete tasks awaiting my attention. That doesn't count the dozen or so books submitted for review, the eight unread personal finance magazines, and the pile of papers spilling onto the floor.

Do you know how many tasks I can focus on at a time? Only one.

And do you know how productive I am because I try to do so much at once? Not very. By trying to do it all at once, I get very little done. According to author David Crenshaw, I have bought into The Myth of Multitasking.

The Myth of Multitasking

Multitasking is a misnomer, Crenshaw argues in his new book. In fact, he says, multitasking is a lie. No — multitasking is worse than a lie. Crenshaw writes:

When most people refer to multitasking, they are really talking about switchtasking. No matter how they do it, switching rapidly between two things is just not very efficient or effective.

His book contains a marvelous exercise with which readers can prove to themselves that this is actually the case, that “switchtasking” takes longer than actually doing one thing at a time. In “The Autumn of the Multitaskers” (from the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic), Walter Kirn also wrote about this phenomenon:

The great irony of multitasking [is] that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking…A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.

Multitasking — or switchtasking — makes us less productive, costs us time, and generally leads to the feeling that we'll never catch up.

In Search of Lost Time

Crenshaw's book suggests some tips for overcoming multitasking in the workplace. In addition, his website offers three “beginning steps” to help slow down switchtasking in your life:

  • Take control of technology. Make space for yourself. Turn off your cell phone. Close your e-mail and chat programs. Shut the door to your office. Or, if you're like me, learn to deal with one browser tab or one document at a time.
  • Schedule what can be scheduled. To minimize interruptions and mindless switchtasking, schedule whatever you can. Learn to use a calendar to schedule meetings with people so that you can give them your full attention. Set aside specific times each day to check your voicemail and email. (This is a technique that Tim Ferriss preaches in The 4-Hour Workweek.)
  • Focus on the person. When you deal with other people, be in the moment. Do not divide your attention between the conversation and another task. Be an active part of the conversation. Listen. Take care of everything before moving on.

The Myth of Multitasking is a short book that conveys a single, critical idea: to do two things at once is to do neither. While I think this book is excellent, and while it was exactly what I needed to read at this point in my life, I would not be willing to purchase it for the $20 cover price. It's well worth a trip to the library, though. (And it might make a good gift for a boss or spouse or a co-worker.)

On the other hand, if Crenshaw's book really can make me more productive, then it's worth $20 and much, much more.

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