Updated on 11.09.08

Review: The Myth of Multitasking

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or entrepreneurship book.

This book attracted me from the title alone – The Myth of Multitasking is something I’ve observed over and over again in my own life. In fact, I’m observing it right now – I can write better and faster if I shut down all distractions: my email program, my web browser, my instant messaging programs, my phone, and my office door.

Whenever I start trying to juggle multiple things – like writing while on the phone with someone or checking other websites while doing research – I cease to do either one very well. I might get the general idea of either activity (I get through a phone call without deep conversation, plus I get a half-baked article written), but I don’t do either one with any degree of excellence. Even more important, not much time is saved, either – I wind up spending roughly the same amount of time if I concentrate on the phone call, then turn off my phone and concentrate on the article – but both wind up with greater quality if I do them one at a time.

Dave Crenshaw, the author of The Myth of Multitasking, noticed the same thing in his own life and sought to investigate it more deeply. Why do people multitask? Why does it create an illusion of productivity? What’s a better way of doing things? Let’s dig in and see what he has to say.

A Walk Through The Myth of Multitasking
The Myth of Multitasking uses a similar concept as The Wealthy Barber – it makes a detailed, fact-based case while telling a story. In this case, the story revolves around Phil, an individual who attempts to address productivity issues in a company.

Rather than just relating this story in minute detail, I thought it’d be worthwhile to point out several of the biggest ideas hidden within the story, ones applicable to how both you and I work.

Switch time Early on, Phil talks about the idea of “switch time” – the time it takes for a person to mentally switch from one task to another, picking up threads and getting one’s mind in gear. Some switches can be done very quickly, but others may take a few minutes.

So let’s look back at my own example of trying to write an article while talking on the phone. In that case, I’m not really doing two things at once – I’m switching back and forth between those two tasks with a tiny slice of time lost with each switch – say, two seconds. Let’s say over the course of a ten minute phone call, I switch my attention away from the article to the phone call ten times and back to the article ten times. This means, assuming the time is switched equally, I have spent four minutes and forty seconds of the phone call actually paying attention, four minutes and forty seconds trying to write the article (a sentence at a time, of course, because I keep getting interrupted), and forty seconds doing nothing but mentally switching between tasks.

Now, out of a ten minute call, if I’ve only paid attention for four minutes and forty seconds of the call, I’ve actually wasted the majority of the call. I’ve likely missed a ton of nuance and specific points along the way. Similarly, I’ve only gained four minutes and forty seconds’ worth of very stilted writing, most of which I’ll have to polish later on to make it useful.

So what am I left with at the end of ten minutes? A phone call that didn’t go that well at all (because I was obviously distracted and not paying full attention) and four minutes’ worth of half-baked writing that I’ll probably have to re-do.

Instead, I could have paid full attention to the phone call, listening attentively, asking questions, and taking important notes, then turned off my phone and wrote with full attention. In the end, the time investment would be roughly the same – I wouldn’t have to re-do that writing, after all – but the quality level would be much, much higher.

Human interactions People are very, very good at telling when you aren’t giving them full attention. If you’re on a phone call and trying to send emails while talking, it’s usually fairly obvious to the person on the other end that you’re distracted and not paying attention. How? That “switch time” comes back to haunt you.

Let’s say you’re concentrating on an email and someone in the phone call asks a question of you. You notice this and switch to the phone call. It takes a second or two for you to replay what was said, then another second or two to develop an intelligent response. This creates an uncomfortable pause in the conversation, one that’s noticed by everyone involved. It slows everyone else down and creates a negative impression of you as someone who doesn’t really care enough to be involved.

On the other hand, if you’re paying careful attention and formulating your own ideas and thoughts about the conversation as it goes along, when a question is addressed to you, you’re likely able to handle it immediately, looking quite sharp to the crowd.

In meetings, do you ever notice how some people seem to always have a good, alert answer, while others seem to hem and haw before answering? Usually, the only difference between the two is whether or not they’re paying attention and not multitasking. Which one of the two do you think comes off better to the others in the room?

Availability So how can you prevent interruptions? Crenshaw’s solution to this harkens straight back to my college days: make yourself available at certain times and not others.

Here’s how the idea works. Your daily schedule should have some regular times when you’re not available to be interrupted and some regular times when you are. Then divide up your tasks between these two times in a sensible fashion. Keep the longer, thought-intensive tasks for the times when you can’t be interrupted, then save the more interruptible tasks (correspondence, etc.) for the times when you can be interrupted.

During those interruptible times, give the interruptor your full attention. Focus entirely on the meeting at hand and focus on giving useful input to the questions asked of you. When you’re not meeting but still in “interrupt” mode, focus on those little tasks that need doing, like quick emails to people, replacing office supplies, and so on.

Not only that, make this policy clear to those who would interrupt you. That way, they know when they can talk to you and get your full attention and also know when you’re not available, too. They’ll understand – they often need that time to focus.

One place where several friends of mine used to work had two hours of “collaboration time” each day where everyone was available to be interrupted. There was usually an hour of this mid-morning and an hour right after lunch. Other than that, you were almost forbidden from interrupting others. All meetings had to be scheduled during “collaboration time” and all quick stop-ins had to be done then, too. It seemed to work very well for them, indeed.

Time-switching on your family Think about this: how often have you sat around thinking about work when you’re spending time with your family? Then, have you ever felt like you’re never really escaping work?

Those two things are often tightly connected. Parents often feel like they’re spending time with their family, but in truth they’re actually working – at least mentally. They’re reading trade magazines, they’re thinking about important tasks at work, or they’re actually sitting there with their laptop open doing work.

I know. I was there not all that long ago. I would spend my evenings doing these very things, trying to keep The Simple Dollar running in the spare time on the edges of my job. At the same time, I’d convince myself that I was spending time with my family, when in truth I was splitting time – and losing a lot of time in the process of switching tasks.

What worked much better was to set aside a block of time for family, then a block of time for work. Situating that block of time for the period after the kids were in bed actually made me more productive than before, because I could then sit in a quiet place and focus on nothing but work tasks.

A “family block” of time gives your family the focused attention they deserve. Don’t let work interrupt that block, because you’ll lose more than you’ll ever gain.

Some Thoughts on The Myth of Multitasking
Here are three things I think I think about The Myth of Multitasking.

Giving productivity advice in the form of a story worked fairly well here. Almost always, it’s somewhat stilted – you’re trying to give real information within the constraints of a fictional story. However, it works well here – roughly as well as it worked in The Wealthy Barber.

The overall message of the book is pretty simple. Multitasking enables you to perhaps do more things, but it certainly doesn’t allow you to do more things well. It just allows you to cram more mediocrity into a certain timeframe.

My favorite point was the idea of having “available” times and “unavailable” times. It’s okay to not always be available to handle those little things. When you make the choice to always be available, you make the choice to not be able to complete big tasks with a high level of quality.

Is The Myth of Multitasking Worth Reading?
The Myth of Multitasking was an enjoyable read that I got through in one sitting, and it carries with it a vital message: multitasking doesn’t really help you get stuff done in a quality way. It takes a lot of different angles on that basic idea, but in the end, that’s the real point that’s hammered home.

So, is that worth your time? The writing style makes The Myth of Multitasking more approachable than most productivity books – if you find yourself zoning out when reading a really meaty book on this topic like Getting Things Done, you might find this one much more worthwhile.

For me, though, I thrive on complex books, and The Myth of Multitasking felt like too many words to express too few ideas. While I can see how the book could be perfect for some (particularly those who find productivity books boring), the content here would have been two or three pages in Getting Things Done, and I’d rather read the compressed version.

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  1. Mule Skinner says:

    I think switch time depends on the mental difficulty of the new task, and perhaps on the emotional freight of the old one.

  2. Lurker Carl says:

    My grandmother was quite adept at knitting and watching TV at the same time. Both tasks were passive in nature, Knitting was mostly repetitive motor functions and TV viewing was not interactive on her part. Many people would consider this multi-tasking but it isn’t what most employers have in mind.

    Try solving calculus equations while talking to the boss. One activity will suffer, if not both. Some people are better at switching back and forth than others but the brain is only processing information from a single task at any particular moment.

    Driving while talking on the phone? Even if the phone is hands free, the vehicle is not. Neither is brain free.

  3. Sounds like a book worth reading. I read “The Wealthy Barber” and I did not like its story-telling style. If a book has too many examples and stories, I find it’s a waste of time and pages. That is the main reason I totally eliminated chitchat, small talk and stories of John and Jane in my book “Invest Now: A Canadian’s Guide To Investing”. I hope to see more personal development type books reviewed here in the future.
    A Dawn Journal

  4. justin says:

    Food for thought…

    Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.
    Albert Einstein

  5. SS says:

    I really enjoyed your review of this book. It helped me understand what multi tasking is. I agree that you cannot do something 100% while you are doing something else at the same time. I am sure this is how mistakes happen too. I also thought though if you concentrate too much on one thing and not others you may be compulsive.
    I also feel that if I concentrate on something and do it and get done and go on to the next thing then I feel I did a good job. I feel your time with family is important. I enjoyed your review very much. Thank you. It made me think more
    and learn.

  6. Brad Castro says:

    The best form of multitasking, I’ve found, is to concentrate on just one thing at a time and keep focusing on it until its completed and six feet under. Then move on to the next priority.

    Of course, that’s not actually multi-tasking, is it? But it does enable you to be more productive in the end, and a whole lot more competent. Traditional multitasking makes it difficult to ever finish anything, or to do it well.

    Thanks for the review –

  7. kristine says:

    What? I’m sorry- I missed some of that. I was grading papers, painting my nails, and watching TV as I read your blog.

    Multitasking is by-product of limited attention span, which is a by-product of too much TV with it’s 5-minutes-tops segment durations!

    They say women are better at multitasking. I would revise that say primary care-givers. You have to keep your concentraion on that boiling pot of water, and at the same time stop a fight, wipe a nose, find a shoe, and answer the phone. It only works if you have one primary task and the rest are either passive, or so routine, that you can do them almost without thinking.

  8. Louise says:

    I worked at a job where I was open to students for nearly all of the working day. I was unable to officially institute set hours when the students could come and see me, so I simply did it unofficially.

    I would ask the secretaries to take my phone calls for a set period of time, normally 2 hours, put a note on the door saying I was out until the end of that set time, and simply get on with important tasks uninterrupted. This made my working days much more prouctive, and much more pleasant.

  9. Sharon says:

    I think we need to remember that any task requiring a machine to be set up are excellent for multitasking. There is no reason for the crockpot to be cooking, the laundry washing, and dvdr to be recording all at the same time. By setting up a few minutes here and there machines can be doing something while we are intelligently engaged elsewhere.

  10. Mike says:

    For the complete primer on multitasking check out John J. Medina’s excellent book “Brain Rules”. In it he describes the entire neurological process of switching between tasks and how the brain does not multitask at all. Multitasking sounds like a good idea but its impossible for a human to do. Switching between tasks certainly degrades the quality of either.

  11. Jules says:

    “Multitasking” is too possible!

    “Multitasking” above is in quotes because actually, it’s not so much multitasking as being compulsive about measuring how much time it takes to do something, and then figuring out whether there’s anything else that can be put on the burner, so to speak, while you’re doing it. Yes, this involves a slight degree of neuroticism that most people don’t have, but it’s how I get as much done during the day as I do.

  12. Shevy says:

    My earliest memory of multitasking is of being 5 years old, sitting in the living room of my grandmother’s house, knitting, reading a book and watching My Favorite Martian in black & white!

    I learned to read at 4 and did pretty much everything from then on with a book in my hand and I just didn’t want to stop in order to do other things that I found fun, so I did them all at once. Since nobody ever told me it was impossible I just went ahead and did it.

    Actually, if you type from either dictation or a written draft or if you read sheet music as you play an instrument you are multitasking.

    And mothers do it all the time. Making school lunches while quizzing the kids on spelling words, braiding hair while helping the kindergartener read her library book and changing the baby while teaching the toddler to sing a nursery rhyme are a few basic examples.

    Yes, it works best when you can do at least one of the tasks on “autopilot” or when one task is almost totally passive. For example, planning a birthday party while driving a familiar route or reading and writing email while taking public transit.

    That said, there are some tasks best done one at a time. Writing, real writing is one of those things. Tasks that require a majority of your attention should be done singly but I strongly believe that if you can walk and talk and chew gum at the same time you can multitask.

  13. Laura says:

    @Mike at #9:
    Our brains as a whole certainly multitask- they control autonomic functions like breathing while at at the same time allowing us to do things like speak. What you’re talking about is allocation of attention. Shevy @ 11 is right that automatic behaviors can be multitasked, but ones that require effort cannot. One of the terms that cognitive scientists use when they talk about this is cognitive load (how much of your active attention and effort is eaten up by the task). For example, a task like tying your shoes is completely automatic for an adult and so has no cognitive load, but a task like flying a plane has a very high cognitive load, so talking to someone who is tying their shoes won’t cause them to tie incorrectly, but talking to a pilot who is doing barrel rolls could be dangerous.

  14. Geraldine says:

    I think that multitasking has been getting a bad rap lately. I agree with the last comment (#11) that there are many things you can multitask, as long as one of them is kind of “brainless”. Just to give you an example, I am a fulltime homemaker with 9 children. You can probably imagine that I spend a lot of time folding laundry, but that is not a job requiring a lot of attention, so while folding laundry, I can also be talking to someone on the phone, listening to my son read his book, planning, etc. Same thing with washing dishes, weeding gardens, etc.

  15. Caitlan says:

    Maybe it shows that my life is not challenging enough, but I have only a few hours of work each day that I have to focus all of my attention on. Cooking, studying, and so on? I think my brain would atrophy if I only thought about mundane daily tasks instead of planning my new projects.

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