The Evils of Multi-tasking - by Ruby Barnes

Modern life is complex. 

Sometimes I wake up of a morning, usually a Monday, and the birds are singing in the trees. All my projects – be they writing, home or day job – are like ripe fruit ready to be picked. I’m so grateful for the opportunities that life presents.

Other days I wake up with a huge weight on my chest. Each project is like a rock on a medieval torture board, squashing me flat as a suspected witch. I can’t draw breath and one more task will finish me off for good. Those days are thankfully few and are just to be got through in one piece. I can’t even reach up to remove a rock and spend the day just concentrating on breathing, knowing the next day will be better. 

I’ve wondered about this phenomenon because the projects on the good days are often the same as those on the bad days. Perhaps the good days are when I have my optimistic head on me and I’m anticipating the rewards of a job well done. On the bad days I’m scared of failure. Failure is a real risk.

Why would a complexity of projects result in failure? Because of the evils of multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking has taken on a new meaning in the modern world of social media and mobile devices. Phone calls, text messages, emails, tweets, snapchat, instagram etcetera are granted the right of interruption. People don’t want to miss out on any potential form of communication. Perhaps the future of our race is to swarm virtually around global trending topics and memes. We think we’re individuals but all we’re really doing is just liking, forwarding, retweeting, commenting with catchphrases and pasting selfies into the swarm. This isn’t real multi-tasking. It’s compulsive communication syndrome (as coined by Dr Barnes in May 2011). 

Not only is social media granted the right of interruption but correspondents expect an immediate response. This can avalanche into constant interaction with no real outcome. I spent the evening on the computer no longer means hours spent surfing websites. It involves online groups, chat threads, emails, twitter conversation etc. Meanwhile the important projects are neglected.

Supposing compulsive communication syndrome can be neutralised, it leaves the more traditional multi-tasking dilemma. If you are working on a computer then the issue is usually obvious. Multiple programs, multiple windows. These represent your projects, all calling for attention. Should you shut them all down, except for one, and work on that? Why not keep them all open and spend an hour on this one, a half hour on another? In that way several projects can be managed simultaneously. Surely that’s more efficient? In short, no. It’s not. 

There are numerous articles on the web about the inefficiency of multi-tasking. Studies are carried out from time to time and confirm that productivity suffers because the transition between tasks is not instantaneous. It takes a while to switch off the thought processes relating to the previous or concurrent activity. The other main problem exhibited is a self-discipline challenge to avoid distraction with email, phone calls etc. All this sounds suspiciously like the compulsive communication syndrome so nothing new here.

So let’s suppose we overcome the transition problems and the distraction. Now we get to the nub of the thing. The term multi-tasking originates from the computer industry and refers to the ability of a microprocessor to process several tasks simultaneously. Human brains don’t work in this way and what we actually do is switch from one task to another. Therein lies the problem. 

I had my eyes opened to the pitfalls of this a few years ago when I attended a course on the Theory of Constraints (sounds like bondage but far less interesting.) 

If you multi-task and switch between projects before completion then the tasks at the top of the pile are inevitably delayed (see diagram, acknowledgement to If there are other things dependent upon these tasks then they are also delayed. This is why things get started but seem to struggle to get finished, be it writing, day job or home. 

So what’s the answer to being more productive with your multiple tasks and making the most of all the opportunities they present? Focus. Prioritise your tasks and focus on one at a time, to completion. Hard wire your avoidance of distractions by turning off apps, closing down multiple windows, logging out of email. You will be surprised how quickly individual tasks can be completed. 

Now, I just have to go check my Amazon sales figures, answer a few emails and post a picture of my karate weapons on facebook. But I’m allowed to do it because I finished this blog post on time.


madwippitt said…
Phew! So glad I need no longer feel guilty about my TVS (tunnel vision syndrome) :-) I shal just give up attempting to multi task ...
@Ruby_Barnes said…
MT defo makes things take longer. Having the strength to schedule instead of multitask can be difficult hough.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
CallyPhillips said…
An intersting book which this post seems relevant to is 'The Shallows' by Nicolas Carr (subtitle: How the internet is changing the way we read, think and remember) And of course and interesting (?) fiction book that looks at the phenomenon you suggest of people just running around consuming through what I'll call 'productive work' is my own 'Brand Loyalty.' Okay, it was written before Twitter became the lifestyle choice of many, but as an historical view of a dystopic future, it does consider what kind of world and what kind of people we are becoming! (some of us. I refuse to love Big Brother even when he's the Ultimate corporation!!)
I make lists in order of priority. If something stays at the bottom of the list for a long time and never gets done, it's mostly because it wasn't a good idea in the first place. I can't focus on one thing at a time to completion though. It isn't the way I work. I always have two or three or sometimes more projects on the go at once, and I generally finish them, only concentrating on one late in the process. Another writer friend who has produced quite a significant body of good, published work once said to me 'I have no idea how I finished any of it. I just seemed to do a bit here and a bit there and it happened.' I knew exactly what he meant. I alternate periods of intense activity with the 'doing a bit here and a bit there' and it works for me but I don't think it would work for everyone. I agree with you about compulsive communication though. We're doing it now! I still seem to get a lot done, but I don't think it does our mental health much good. And people do expect an instant response and get quite cross when they don't get it.
Bill Kirton said…
Very familiar, Ruby. I think I may have a particularly virulent form of the MT syndrome in that I don't engage in Twitter or Facebook 'conversations' or post much on Pinterest or have a significant online presence and yet I still spend time on them all. I'll try to take your advice to heart.
Lydia Bennet said…
There is a cliché that people who spend a lot of time online on fb etc need to 'get a life' and basically waste their time, yet many fb friends of mine are very successful, hard working and productive novelists, poets etc despite having a solid presence on social media sites.
As a species we are pretty much compulsive communicators, but there is also the isolation of being a writer as a day job - you could end up spending a lot of time alone, which most of us enjoy, but we also enjoy communicating. the chat people might get at the office or staffroom or on the bus etc, we can get from virtual colleagues who have similar preoccupations.
Kathleen Jones said…
Oh dear, I recognise the symptoms of CCS. Is there a cure? Internet Addicts Anonymous?

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