Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

My friend Amanda recently started a thread on her blog about multitasking that caught my eye. She's a bit critical of multitasking, essentially claiming it's a farce and only destroys productivity. Having worked in a number of companies and environments with different views on the issue, I think the answer is a bit more nuanced.

The presumption that any multitasking defeats productivity is grounded in a pretty broad assumption that all tasks require 100% effort or attention to complete them efficiently. Rather, the discussion should be more around the "return," so to speak, on one's effort. For example, have you ever gone to a store and not fonud what you wanted on the shelf? Of course you have; stockouts are a part of retail. In a well run company, such situations are engineered, not happenstance. At some point, the cost of tying up the company's capital by holding more inventory, hiring more stocking personnel, etc. can no longer justify the marginal increase in sales from guaranteeing you'll have a product. Of course, having too high of a stockout rate can be detrimental to business, by missing out on revenue from unsatisfied customers.

The same principles should apply to how we use our time. Some tasks do demand one's full attention. For example, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to multitask by watching a movie while taking a final exam or checking your blackberry while on a dinner date (provided you're interested in the person across from you). On the other hand, taking a call while riding in a cab is likely an efficient form of multitasking; the odds of you reaching your destination by *really* focusing on that cab ride probably aren't much higher than if you zone out in the back seat.

In other instances, multitasking may also be a good idea because it improves the productivity of what you're already doing. This is why people take notes in meetings and refer to documents/presentations while on teleconferences. There's also the argument of multitasking to increase group efficiency as opposed to just your own, i.e. replying to an e-mail during part of a meeting that doesn't pertain to you may be the most efficient use of your time.

The point is, the situation isn't as black-and-white as many make it out to be. Ultimately, society probably needs to coalesce around some norms that dictate proper vs. improper use of multitasking. Being in a long distance relationship, I tried to spark such an "agreement" with my girlfriend around how we can use various communication tools most efficiently. Needless to say, this might not have been the right way to go about it. "Efficient communications use" matrices that lead to messages such as "if we talk on IM during the day it may mean I have to work later, which might mean we don't get to talk on the phone at night" apparently are not as well received in personal life as in business. So, yeah, you may want to have more tact in raising the topic of personal resource allocation than I did.


ajay said...

Danny - You tend to only include the most convenient forms of multitasking. When I think of multitasking I think "IMing while Coding" or something like that. In that case I agree with your friend. Even when during coding there might be a 30 second pause during which you have to wait for some process to finish it's highly unlikely you'll IM for just 30 seconds. Even if you do IM for 30 seconds your whole thought process is off track. Often insights in work come from really concentrating on one thing for a while. But of course it depends on the person and the situation too. But in general I think people multitask way too much.

Also of note, I've often heard that women are better at multitasking then men. I wonder if that's evolutionary, genetic, socially developed, or just bogus?

dpm said...

Hey Ajay, you caught me! Yeah, I picked some obvious "low hanging fruit" examples, but the point is there is a grey area that's worth thinking about. The one exception perhaps is what I mentioned about multitasking during meetings, which isn't accepted practice everywhere. Your example is equally obvious, but where do we draw the line? Let's say your program takes 5 minutes to run? or 10? A friend of mine once told me that research shows it can take 4 minutes to refocus after being "interrupted" by checking e-mail. At the time I was checking e-mail about 25-30 times a day...probably not efficient, so I've cut back since. This kind of research will prove extremely valuable to companies as they can educate their employees to do less destructive multitasking and optimize their workflow habits more efficiency.

As for the gender gap...don't know about that one, but would be happy to read any articles/research you find on it!