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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Multi-tasking is as bad as procrastination

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Deep down, we all know it. Multi-tasking is bad for productivity. I’ve known for quite a while that I get less done when I’m multi-tasking, but I can’t get out of the habit of having half a dozen (or more) applications and windows open at once. As a minimum, I usually have instant messenger, Twitter, e-mail, several apps and at least two web browsers with tens of tabs all open at once. All of this screams for my attention.

But like every other geek I know, I’d like to think that I can multi-task. I’d like to believe that I can post an update to Twitter at the same time as I am holding an instant message conversation, simultaneously to writing a blog post or a report for a client. It’s a seductive idea and one that has gained a lot of currency over recent years. Technology, we are told, allows us to do many things at once more quickly and effectively than we ever could before. It seems almost sacrilegious to suggest that this might not be true, but the other day I read in the New Scientist that it’s just not possible to multitask, not really.

Alison Motluk says in How many things can you do at once? (requires subscription) that the only tasks that you can do at the same time are very simple stimulus and response tasks, such as seeing a shape and hitting a button or hearing a sound and saying something. Even these simple tasks need training to complete successfully simultaneously. Most of us can’t simultaneously see a shape, hit a button, hear a sound, and say something very easily. Think how much harder it is to genuinely multitask, to a hold three conversations, say on Twitter, IM and e-mail, at once whilst trying to focus on writing original prose and listening to music or a podcast.

Developing from what Motluk writes, I think that what we are really doing is splitting up tasks into tiny pieces which we then interleave one with another. Is it really any wonder that multi-tasking slows us down? Every time you swap from one task to the next you have to shift context, you have to recall what it was that you were doing or saying, and then you have to take your tiny action before swapping context back to what you were doing previously. If you said, ‘Okay, I’m going to split every task up into small five second chunks and in between each chunk I’m going to stand up and sit down again’, you wouldn’t for a second be able to deceive yourself into thinking that that would make you more efficient. But that’s effectively what we’re doing when we’re trying to multitask. The fact that we’re interleaving tiny junks of work with each other instead of standing up doesn’t make any difference - we’re still slowing ourselves down.

I remember once reading in a book of aphorisms that ‘The best way to get many things done at once is to do one thing at a time’. From what I’ve read in the New Scientist there now seems to be some evidence that this is actually the case, that the best way to multi-task really is to do one thing at once.

I’m not sure that this is really new news, though. Who, deep down, hasn’t pretty much known that multi-tasking is a con? We’ve known for years about the state of flow, where you are so entranced by what you are doing that each next action comes almost effortlessly, and it seems pretty obvious that if you are constantly interrupting yourself you cannot enter a state of flow. The problem I have is not in recognising that multi-tasking is a bad idea, but in breaking the multi-tasking habit. I’ve been fooling myself into thinking that I can multi-task for so long now that I have slipped into some really bad habits which I desperately need to break if I am to really get done some of the big projects that I want to work on this year.

One tool I’ve started using to help me focus is Think, Mac software which blocks out all the other apps you have open with a black screen, allowing you to focus only on the one application you have chosen to bring to front and centre. It sort of works for me, but doesn’t really go far enough, because it’s easy enough for me just to alt-tab to another application at any time I want. It does stop me seeing if another email or Twitter message has arrived, but I can achieve that goal just as easily by - oh, the horror! - closing those tabs in my browser.

But I wonder if the solution to my focusing problem lies elsewhere.

Last week, my friend Stephanie came to stay and she was keen to show me how she had set up Dragon NaturallySpeaking - speech-to-text software - on her Mac, (using Parallels because Dragon is sadly Windows-only). I had a bit of a play with it, as it’s been quite a long time since I’ve tried any dictation software, and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it is. With only 20 minutes’ training, it was fairly accurately transcribing what I was saying. In fact, the first draft of this blog post was dictated with it.

Whilst I was dictating, I had a bit of a mini-epiphany. Despite having all the usual applications and websites open that haunt me on a daily basis, I was much more tightly focused on what I was doing. Because I was speaking aloud and not writing, I found I wasn’t spending half as much time looking at the computer screen as usual - instead, I was gazing off into the middle distance, scrutinising the door jam or staring at the ceiling. I only noticed that there were Twitter messages or IMs to read when I glanced back at the screen. Even though I felt awkward dictating, I got closer to a state of actual concentration than I have in a goodly long time.

It wasn’t just where my eyes fell that made me not take so much notice of Twitter and IM. It was also the fact that in order to react to Twitter I have to switch output modes from speech to text, and I felt reluctant to do that. Normally the majority of what I am doing is reading and typing, and because that accounts for about 90% of my working day, it feels as if everything I do that involves reading and writing is basically the same task. No matter that each is an individual action, they all sort of blur into one because they are the same type of action. But moving from a speech-based task to a text-based task seemed like more of an effort than moving between two text-based ones, so it was easier just to ignore the text-based task until the speech-based one was finished. In effect, dictating made it easier to ignore the things that usually distract me.

I’m going to get Parallels and Dragon NaturallySpeaking installed on my Mac so that I can do a little bit more of dictation and see how I take to it. The software has evolved amazingly since I last used it in 2000 - it’s incredibly fluid now, even with a minimal amount of training - but it will be interesting to see how it affects my style. I’ve noticed in editing the draft for this post that I produced in Dragon that my style was really very different, but as I get used to dictation perhaps that would normalise back to my usual way of writing.
Might this be a new way of helping me to focus on written tasks that are currently proving too easy to procrastinate? Task like… dare I say it… writing a book? I’ve been saying to ages that I want to write more blog posts and write a book, but somehow I seem to waste hours and hours in tiny five second chunks spread out over the day, in Twitter, IM or e-mail. Maybe dictation is a way for me to focus on what really needs to be done.

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14 Responses to “Multi-tasking is as bad as procrastination”

  1. Harold Says:

    Ouch. Great post. If the multi-taskers get alert to this post, you’ll be in for a festival of flaming — or, more optimistically, a festival of fantastic critically-minded comments. Let’s hope for the latter.

    I discovered your post after a fellow Twitterer posted a link to it on Twitter. Just to let you know. I’m going to re-read your post now, because honestly: I skimmed it.

  2. B.L. Ochman Says:

    I also got here thru twitter. and uh oh, you really nailed the distraction thing!

    beware of many hours of dictation though, as many people develop throat problems, I’ve heard.

    i keep wanting to set up my day so i do email, blog, and play in twitter at certain times only. perhaps you will inspire me to try it for today, after i check out what’s going on, that is. :>)

  3. kellyd Says:

    As an inveterate multi-tasker and twitter-aholic, I’m going to definitely try Think.

    Thanks.

  4. Harold Says:

    I’m really going to make an effort to read your full article now. I’m serious. I’ve switched to a laptop; earlier, I was skimming through while sitting at a desktop which is really a media center, kind of, and I can’t comfortably read long(er) articles whilst sitting at that machine.

    So here I go, the multi-tasker I am…Wish me luck! (In all sincerity.)

  5. Harold Says:

    I’m trying to keep that Gaim icon out of my view. I may sound like I’m clowning, but I’m not. I’ve logged out of the IM program and am blocking it’s icon with my browser, so I can read your article without distraction. Hopefully now Windows update processes will grab my attention…

  6. Harold Says:

    I’m in your third or fourth paragraph, not skimming. Reading every word. Interested in moving on to the New Scientist article after reading yours, if I can freely do so. (Have a copy available?)

    Real quickly, I’m going to begin playing a CD. Something (probably) non-distractive, ambient: the Orb. Background relaxation for my reading pleasure.

  7. Harold Says:

    This is maddening. I’m not clowning here - while opening the CD tray on the other PC (my “media center”), I realized there were some tasks I wanted to complete. Yesterday I installed WinXP on that PC, and the installation disk was still in the tray, and I wanted to finish installing some extra software from the disk, set up networking, install .NET framework. So I’m doing that right now…The networking setup process requires me to insert another WinXP disk into the laptop I’m using to type this (and read your article), and I’m not sure what’s going to happen next, but I’m guessing I may need to reboot once the task is completed. I’ve got your article in IE’s History, and hopefully I’ll remember to return to read the rest of the article. It really is interesting…

  8. Harold Says:

    I finally finished your article, and I’ve got a few points to make. If you or anyone wishes to contact me, please use the email address I applied to my last post, harold dot johnson at gmail dot com. Just found out the other email address isn’t working, or doesn’t seem to be. (It’s one I’ve set up exclusively for my mobile device, but it appears it’s no longer receiving email.)

    One: I agree with your epiphanies, to a great extent, except that I feel that multitasking may actually induce more productivity in certain occupations, i.e. artistic output. More specifically, certain types of art. Let’s take writing, for example. Most writing styles demand full attention to the craft: Writing this article, for example. But if you’re James Joyce, attempting to depict the mind in all of its multitasking glory, it may be more beneficial to allow the mind to “wander” as you are writing. This, of course, may apply to other types of art as well. Think of any type of creative activity, and you’ll find that multitasking can work extremely well in allow you to free your mind to the task at hand, as long as you *keep in mind* a certain goal (such as the writing of a chapter in a novel).

    Two: I’m trying real hard to focus on my composition of this comment; it may, in fact, be the most focused activity I’ll perform today, since I’m “in tune”, at this moment - due to your article - with the apparent flaws of multitasking. Often I’ve felt distracted by new applications (such as voice dictation) or the introduction of uncomfortable sounds, sights, etc. into my workspace. (For example, when I perform my research/work using my PowerBook at a new/different cafe.) Yet, after a certain period of time, many of these distractions dissipate, and I find myself “back in the flow”, integrating these new elements or applications or whatnot into my work session. Something to consider.

    Thanks for writing this article. I’d love to read New Scientist’s take on this, too.

  9. serendipitously Says:

    Interesting article.
    In pursuit of just about every job from working at McDonalds through to customer service through to professional vocations, the HR ‘gurus’ ask for a whizz bang answer to how good you are at ‘multitasking’. I’ll refrain from getting on my hobby horse about HR consultants, but your article reveals that it isn’t just in the online environment that this word is bandied around.

  10. Tiffany Says:

    I now realized the error of my way.

  11. Suw Says:

    Harold: Are you sure you’re not just yak shaving there?

    BL Ochman: Yes, you’re right about the potential for straining my voice. Let’s face it, I don’t usually say much in between Kevin leaving in the morning and coming back in the evening, apart from rare phone calls. I shall have to make sure I take care of my voice.

    Serendipitously: No, I think the concept of multitasking is everywhere, from online to McDonalds to the military. In fact, it’s alarmingly widespread… although given its seductive nature, we shouldn’t be surprised.

  12. wpbarr Says:

    I no longer compose anything longer than a paragraph using the keyboard. I have used Dragon for several years now. If you really want to get productive, get a digital recorder that is Dragon-friendly.

  13. Mark Hughes Says:

    It’s a generational problem. People who did not grow up with videogames have no capability of dealing with multitasking or tracking multiple sites of motion; your brains just aren’t adapted to it. So yes, for you, it’s probably quite bad, and you should avoid it. It doesn’t affect others the same way. Sorry, your brain is obsolete.

  14. Suw Says:

    Mark, have you seen reports of any scientific evidence of this? I have a sneaking suspicion that this is another one of those nice ideas that might not hold water when examined scientifically. The human brain is very adaptable, yes, but is it capable of changing that significantly in such a short time in a single section of the population, i.e. gamers? Not every child plays videogames, after all…