Repeat after me: multi-tasking doesn't work.

Saturday's New York Times ran an article on the perils of multi-tasking. According to the article, David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, reports that

Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.

And if you still believe that you're different, that you really can talk on the phone to a customer while writing an email, this is what René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University has to say:

A core limitation [of the human brain] is an inability to concentrate on two things at once.

But the truly pernicious effect of multi-tasking (which is really just rapid, sequential tasking) is not the lower efficiency and higher error rate. The real damage is due to our tendency to lose focus on the task at hand and forget what we were doing.

The NYTimes article points out that

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites. I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” said Eric Horvitz, a Microsoft research scientist and co-author, with Shamsi Iqbal of the University of Illinois. If it’s this bad at Microsoft,” Mr. Horvitz added, “it has to be bad at other companies, too."

Are you ever frustrated because you lose track of the little things at work? Or, conversely, that you never seem to finish the important tasks on your list? Well, choose a few blocks of time during the day and learn to say "no." No interruptions. No email. No phone calls. No distractions. No multi-tasking. Just focus on your work and get it done.

It works. Really, it does. Just give it a try. One task at a time.

(Read Merlin Mann's excellent post on this topic here. Or read & download a longer article I've written here.)


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