This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Why is multitasking so attractive?


Yep. Another article about multitasking - the evil beyond all evils. Well, okay, maybe not so strong. But people in many arenas crow about how dangerous it is. Including me. Many times. And this will unlikely be the last.

But even though we talk about how dangerous it is*, why do we find so many people continue along that path? Why do I find myself with a bunch of partially-completed work?

There must be something attractive in doing this? Maybe an itch that is scratched by multitasking. Or maybe the concept of single-tasking or focus is just darned hard to implement. Or the promise of focused work seems too good to be true.

A couple big reasons I have used (and heard) for multitasking - or for not single-tasking:

  • I have too many things to do, and I need to make progress on all of them.
  • I am compelled to start new work as soon as it shows up, in order to show progress.
  • I don't have control over the incoming work.
  • I feel like a team player when I respond to requests immediately.  (Or I will look like I am not a team player if I don't respond immediately.)
  • I cannot stand it when I don't have anything to do.
  • Doing one thing for too long gets boring / difficult.  Or I need downtime during difficult activities.
  • I have plenty of time to complete the tasks, so I can switch between them.
  • I am expected to be a "good multitasker" on my job. It was in the job description, even.
  • I always want to feel like I am busy to show that I am contributing.
  • ... I am sure you can come up with your own list of reasons why it is so attractive.

There is something in the nature of how we think and live that drives us to multitask - to take on more and more work.  My list above includes a lot of assumptions that can be debunked or at least challenged. And most of the good guidance around not multitasking involves practicing a different way of working and thinking. Practice doing one thing through completion. Practice keeping a backlog of ready work and a much smaller list of active work. Practice working in short bursts, taking a break, and then working again. Practice. Practice. Practice.

* Multitasking: Switching from task to task to task to task without ever finishing. It takes longer to finish any one activity. The quality is usually lower. And people who depend on the output cannot reliably depend on when they will get it, almost forcing them into their own multitasking spiral.

I was inspired to write this by some recent conversations with colleagues about the persistent nature of multitasking. And by Nathan Zeldes' blog post on One Thing at a Time: Debunking Multitasking, where he describes more of the dangers of multitasking.

High WIP - break out the whip

Making Work Visible by Dominica DeGrandis