Multitasking

Are you a multitasker? Apparently you’re likely to be more unproductive then if you just focus on a single task. Which is something I would say I agree with based on my experience.

know I’m not a great multitasker. I find it really hard, to the point that, if I’m actually going to get a lot of work done, I need to just focus one thing at a time. However, I also find that I sabotage myself a lot, in that I have a terrible habit of switching windows to check my email (a ridiculous number of times a day) or opening a new window to search down a topic that jumps to mind – whether or not it has anything to do with what I’m currently doing doesn’t matter.

In fact, as I was writing that last paragraph, I switched windows to check my email, opened a window to check progress on an ethics application (even though they email if there’s any news), and opened another new window to check enrolment for an experiment I’m running this afternoon. And, as I’m writing this one, I’ve already fought the urge to check my email again (never mind that it’s only been minutes (seconds?) since I last checked). It’s a very terrible habit.

I also know that how much (or how often) I feel the urge to move to look at or work on a different task depends greatly on my current motivation and productivity level. When I’m working on a pomodoro and in a roll, I rarely have these moments. But when I’m having a hard time getting started, and lacking any motivation, these happen with greater frequency.

I read before about the idea of keeping a piece of paper, text window, something around (or open) so that if you have that random thought or idea, you just jot it down, and then go back to what you’re doing. Then, when you’re suppose to take a break, you can look at that list and complete any of the items on it. It’s a great idea. However, my bigger problem is by the time I remember to do that, I’ve already opened a new window and am in the middle of searching or reading or whatnot. So it’s a bit late.

The RescueTime data is also interesting to look at, because I have a zillion tasks that clock in at under 1 minute (perfect examples of these breaks in concentration). On days I’m motivated, there are a lot less of the small tasks, and more are >5 minutes. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you’re working on a programming task, you generally still end up switching between windows a lot.

Anyway, I think a lot of the examples in the article (uncluttering your workspace) apply to a computer as much as a physical area. I know I habitually have a zillion Firefox windows open. But, I feel a lot more calm and organized when I only have a few. So, every few days I make a point to go through my windows and close as many as possible. It’s a work in progress, but I’m getting better.

Do you have a problem with multitasking? Or are you one of those (rare) ones who is actually really good at it?

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2 thoughts on “Multitasking

  1. Hi. Thank you very much for this post. A lot of PhD students (including me) experience the same problem. I am not sure whether we can name it multitasking though. I think multitasking is more about trying to have good performance in more than one task at the same time. Unnecessary and unproductive distractions, however, hinder the best performance in other tasks (unless a person does not aim to have a good performance in email checking 🙂 Activities such as checking the emails for a ridiculous number of times are more like self-handicapping/self-sabotaging as you mentioned.

    • I think it’s a mix between multitasking and self-sabotage. 🙂 I’m often working on a document or code, chatting with a friend on skype, checking (and replying) to emails, and searching random topics that come up. Some of that is multitasking, and some of it probably falls more into self-sabotage.

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