"I do like to read a book while having sex. And talk on the phone. You can get so much done. " (actress Jennifer Connelly, 2005)
The above quote probably isn’t quite what bloggers such as Matt Cornell, Tim Walker, Tim Morgan, Merlin Mann, and others had in mind when they inveighed against multitasking. But seldom has any statement made the folly of multitasking so creepily apparent.

In the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Walter Kirn wrote an elegant attack on multitasking (The Autumn of the Multitaskers, available here.) that covers a lot of ground, and quite eloquently. In response to those who mistakenly believe that multitasking helps us get more stuff done, he writes

This is the great irony of multitasking – that its overall goal, getting more done is less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly.

Of course, some people argue that they’re different – they really can handle a conversation while checking email. But unless you’re ready for a starring role in an Oliver Sacks book, or have been hanging with the monkeys in 2001: A Space Odyssey at the moment of their great cognitive evolutionary leap, you’re probably not.

In fact, as Kirn points out, there’s an additional downside to multitasking: the inability to remember what you were processing. As he puts it, the

constant switching and pivoting [of multitasking] appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

In other words, even if we can get that analysis of the salty snack food market in Missouri completed in time for the meeting, we’re not real likely to understand or even remember it.

So how do you cut down on the multitasking? Here are three ideas:

1. Make the ringing stop.
Turn off your email alerts or, even better, work offline. Don’t worry: you won’t forget to check your messages. I promise.

2. Be professorial.
Try keeping office hours for people to freely interrupt you, and other hours when you’re not available. Tweed coat and pipe are optional.

3. Make friends with manila folders. Create one for each person you interact with often (and have them make ones for you). When you’ve got something to talk about that’s not urgent, write the item on a piece of paper and place it in the folder. By bundling your discussion topics and questions, you and your colleagues can cover all the material in one conversation, rather than suffering death by a thousand cuts.

The most common reason given for multitasking is the importance – nay, absolute necessity – of providing instant response to a client. But if all you’re offering to a client is a really fast email reply, eventually they’ll find someone in Mumbai or Slovenia who can provide it faster. So don’t fall for that fallacy. Multitasking doesn’t work. And you’ll be better able to provide real value when you stop deluding yourself and start concentrating.

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