An argument against multi-tasking

I should start this discussion by noting that I am not 100 percent against multi-tasking. I am in favor of reading a book while waiting in line at the DMV and listening to your iPod while grocery shopping. These tasks can be considered low-functioning activities because your primary level of productivity isn’t affected by the presence of a second task.

I am, however, against multi-tasking when doing more higher-functioning activities. Most projects, when worked on in a focused manner, will get done more quickly when they are the only task in front of you. The fewer interruptions you have, the more efficient your productivity.

Mono-tasking is especially important while organizing. If you decide to overhaul your digital filing system and organize your data, it’s best not to have your instant messaging or e-mail clients tempting you with greetings from friends. One message from a friend can set you back 10 to 20 minutes.

Mono-tasking also is good for making sure that objects are returned to their proper places at the end of an activity. If you take the five minutes to concentrate on putting away belongings immediately after you’re finished with them, you’ll avoid a disorganized living space. Push yourself to finish one project before you start your next endeavor.

I have found that mono-tasking has positive outcomes in areas beyond organization and productivity. If you focus on listening to a person when they’re speaking with you, they feel appreciated and respected. Driving without distractions improves your safety record, and rarely do others complain when you finish what you start.

Try designating your time by a single activity and see how it affects your overall productivity. I’m interested in hearing from you about your experiences with multi- and mono-tasking in the comments section.

45 Comments for “An argument against multi-tasking”

  1. posted by Recovering Food Waster on

    I do better when I don’t have to multi-task, but as a mom of four, I’m often left with little choice in the matter! I rarely get undistracted time to work on much of anything.

    I do like to multitask by listening to sermons on CD while I’m doing mindless tasks like laundry, or scrubbing the floor, and I also like to listen to stuff like that while driving(I have no trouble paying attention to my driving while listening to a sermon).

    I should take your advice on listening…way too often I’m trying to accomplish something else when my husband is talking to me, and I think it would mean a lot to him if I just put my work down and listened.

  2. posted by Ann on

    This is a topic near and dear to my heart and I’ve been thinking a about it a lot lately as I work to conquer my physical and mental clutter.

    As a working mother with attention/focus issues, multi-tasking feels like a necessary evil. Lately I’ve been using the techniques from The Now Habit to gather my energy and give my full attention to the task at hand.

    Projects like clearing clutter are especially challenging for me: it provokes so much anxiety and I quickly feel overwhelmed – it’s so easy to flit from one thing to another, one pile to another with the end result of NO result!

    And I couldn’t agree more about listening!

  3. posted by Kristin on

    Another timely post. I was on the phone with a friend the other day, giving her my undivided attention. Towards the end of the conversation (and what caused the end to arrive sooner than it might have otherwise) was that I walked by my computer and saw I had an email. I clicked and read. My friend IMMEDIATELY said to me ‘okay, you’re doing something else now’. She could tell in that short period of time, from my response (or lack thereof, emotionally, at least) that I was multitasking. I immediately felt horrible. She’s a good friend and totally ‘gets’t it but I still felt bad.

    I won’t be doing that again. I now have a chair in our sunroom that I go to when speaking with friends. It’s disrespectful to multitask while on the phone.

  4. posted by Vered on

    I completely agree. Research shows that multi tasking *reduces* efficiency. Our brains are just not wired to deal with more than one major task at a time.

    http://momgrind.com/2008/03/29.....efficient/

  5. posted by Mary on

    tell it to my boss ….

    Seriously I think most would prefer to work on one thing at a time with no interruptions. Real life (at least in my life as a software developer) seldom works that way. I always have at least one on-going project and have to deal with constant interruptions and changing priorities.

    Home is the same … I’ve had to learn to juggle tasks to be more efficient. I often start a load of laundry, start dinner and work on the yard with a child undertow.

  6. posted by mb on

    While I agree with your post I must say that it has been identified that at times multi-tasking can help your focus. Some people are easily distracted and no matter how hard they try their mind can, and does, wander. It has been found that doing something that does not necessarily require lots of focus but keeps you a little busy helps to keep your mind focused on what ever is being said. Such as knitting while listening to a lecture. When I am doing very detailed cataloging listening to music on an i-pod keeps me focused and blocks out other distractions.

  7. posted by john chandler on

    So does this mean I shouldn’t be reading this blog while trying to work on a research paper? ;)

  8. posted by Celeste on

    I really can’t accomplish a task and listen to somebody at the same time. I will almost always pick the task for my attention and that’s not good for relationships. This is the main reason I don’t care for talking in the car; I have seen my sister almost have an accident because she put the talking first, and I know exactly how that can happen. Listening to music in the car is something that I do constantly, but I think of it as the most enjoyable part of driving and it’s a little late for me to separate them now. When I have chosen not to listen to something, my mind just goes into overdrive on the road with dreaming dreams or reliving events, so I’m not sure that turning off the music really causes me to monotask on driving. I feel like my alertness has more to do with how much sleep I’ve had.

    I find myself doing a lot of thinking about the next thing while I am immersed in a task, and prefer to let that be as much multi-tasking as I do.

    I think multi-tasking is bad, for the most part.

  9. posted by The Vital Muse on

    Excellent advise and I love the big red “1” at the top of the post. Mental uncluttering is an incredibly difficult task in our world of constant noise and divided attention. Meditation practice is a good aid to at least bring recognition to how your mind perceives all the “stuff” coming in. And that’s a step towards sorting it out and dealing with it effectively.

  10. posted by Susan on

    Multi-tasking is near and dear to my heart. I’m an emergency medicine physician and juggling many things is what I do everyday at work. While it’s not something I can avoid, I do find that even though I have many things going on at once, I definitely do get more done if I focus my attention on one little task at a time and finish it before going on to another little task. So even though I’m multi-tasking, I’m still mono-tasking. Does that make sense?

  11. posted by Tarsila Kruse on

    I have been to the organized space before and somehow I lost myself into clutter. Funny enough I have been trying to get back to my SUPER DOOPER organized life and I have been struggling to do so because I am, normally, a multi-task person. I noticed recently that I have been distracted and I often stray away from my organizing tasks because, obviously I was doing something else at the same time. Well, I am taking one step at a time and focusing on one task fully..let’s see how things roll…

  12. posted by Shelly on

    I can’t imagine working without my 3 email inboxes, 4 chat clients, news websites, and various blogs to check via google reader. All of these things help keep my brain stimulated throughout the day. I’m not the _most_ productive employee, but my work is excellent and I’m very much appreciated by my colleagues. Multi-tasking allows me to get my work done without feeling bored/ intellectually stagnant.

    Of course, there are some things that help me to hyperfocus on the task at hand, such as an imminent deadline or caffeine. I’ve considered adderall or ritalin but only on the rare occasion that I feel overwhelmed.

    I don’t think multi-tasking is bad. It’s my way of life and it works very well for me. I have a feeling some of the unclutterer folks would be horrified at the site of my windows task bar, though.

  13. posted by Empress Juju on

    Nearly every time I have trouble finding something, I can trace my steps back to when I became distracted by another task and didn’t complete the first one, and lo and behold, that’s when I misplaced the item!

  14. posted by Ann at One Bag Nation on

    I’ve just remembered that I seriously considered naming my blog “UNITASKER” but for me the name came with the unavoidable reminder of the “unabomber”, so I decided to find another name.

    Empress – I feel your pain – that sounds like most of my days around here!

  15. posted by agl on

    I’ve more-or-less come to terms with the necessary evil of multi-tasking, or at least it feels necessary most of the time. Even with my twins, there are TWO babies to focus on. I’m not sure when I last focused on only one thing. Now for example, I’m at work but reading this blog and also eating lunch. But it is something to think about. In a perfect world…

  16. posted by Shannon on

    I really like how this blog has expanded to discuss uncluttering all aspects of life, not just possessions. Uncluttering my mind is something I am working on. Not making a whole lot of progress at this point, but at least the thought is there. :)

  17. posted by Josephine on

    Unfortunately, multi-tasking is viewed as a good thing. How many job descriptions have you seen where the ability to juggle multiple tasks is viewed as a good thing. Granted it may come in handy for small tasks, but can lead to errors if you’re distracted from a detail-oriented assignment.

    Personally, I never:
    – listen to music or the radio while performing a task. I find it too distracting.
    – watch TV or read while eating. I know some may find this strange, but I really want to savor my meal. My Sunday brunches, for example, are a sacred ritual, and the NYT magazine always accompanies me; however, as soon as brunch is served, I immediately put down the puzzle.

  18. posted by Vasco Figueira on

    I estimate the productivity ratio between multi/monotasking to be around 8x, in highly technical and intellectual work.

    I’m still susprised by people’s inability to recognize that productivity difference. “No, I’m not delayed by having my IM contantly flashing, that’s HOW I WORK” – they say. Yeah, right.

    When someone multitasks at me I get – I love this word – pizzled. Puzzled and pissed off.

  19. posted by Hopeful Lily on

    Cleanup tasks generally use the same part of the brain. I don’t call it multitasking to put in a load of laundry, wash up a batch of dishes, clean off the kitchen counters, recycle junk mail, put newspapers and magazines where they belong, and the like. It’s all part of one imperative, to make the central living area clutter-free.

    It’s a bit harder to be working intensely on something that requires concentration and be jerked out of it to do something else that requires concentration. The reset time is wasted time. Yet this is common when working in an office. People are always interrupting the flow. And people replicate it needlessly while working in home offices. We don’t need to check e-mail every second, or to click on every new piece that arrives the moment it does. But most of us do.

  20. posted by Shelly on

    Sorry, but why is it _unfortunate_ that multitasking is a valued skill for some jobs? I would fail at my job without this ability. If I’m in the middle of composing an email and I get a quick IM about an urgent matter, I need to be able to quickly focus on that issue until it is resolved, and then continue my email. The ability to quickly change the focus of your thoughts is very valuable in some careers. Multitasking works great if you are able to prioritize well. In fact I would argue that it allows you to prioritize very efficiently. I may have 3 or 4 emails halfway complete at any given time – typically the most important one will get sent first.

    I don’t think there is a style of working that is better or worse in general – it really depends on your personality and the type of work you do.

    I appreciate the organization tips on this website, but sometimes I feel like the writers don’t understand people with my personality type at all. It is easy to _see_ the value in being organized. It is more difficult to appreciate what less-organized/distractable people bring to the table. The inclination to rapidly switch between topics of thought is a quality shared by many of the world’s great innovators – a lot of great ideas come about this way.

    Please consider that our entire primary education system is designed for regimented mono-taskers – it is a system that was originally designed to turn out obedient factory laborers in Europe. But some people don’t like to learn about only one topic for one hour and then switch to the next one when the bell rings. Monotasking is great for factory workers, but it can be crippling to innovators.

    Sorry, I realize this is kind of out of place in your comments section… my mind was just wandering a bit.

  21. posted by tay on

    I’ve been working on this for a while now. I’m getting better but haven’t perfected it yet. This is very important to me. It feels like I woke up one day and said “I’m doing a whole lot of everything and I haven’t got anything done!” I thought once I acquired the guy and the baby that multitasking would be my saving grace. But it was quite the opposite.

    As for motherhood…I’ve realized that multitasking is my archenemy. Being in the moment is the highest on my priority list. Multi-tasking is what makes me miss the little things, the important things. I didn’t want to be the mother who missed playing with my daughter, looking into her eyes, watching her discover something new because I was so busy trying to get the first 10 things on my list done while I entertain her(all at the same time of course).
    Of course there are just some things that have to be done, but I prioritize, focus, be in the moment, and get them done one at a time. I’ve had my time with my daughter and I’ve done maybe two things on the list…However, I’ve COMPLETED two tasks and both my daughter and I are happy and have spent time doing things that are memorable. What hasn’t been completed will be there tomorrow ;-)

  22. posted by Eve on

    As someone with ADD, I’d have to say that it’s nearly impossible for an ADDer to monotask. I’ve tried it, and it drives me insane. But for normies, I’m sure it’s better to monotask.

  23. posted by Dream Mom DBA www.dreamorganizers.com on

    As a general rule, I prefer to focus on one task at a time. I also notice more and more people saying, “I can only focus on one item at a time” when let’s say, I have a ton of wheelchair repairs for the repairman to do or many questions for a doc.

    I should also note, that sometimes, there are better ways to do something than idly multi-task. For example, I was working with a nursing client (at her work office)who often had long wait times with a particular vendor. She would often multi-task during that time however the problem was that too many minutes were wasted on that vendor, even if she was multi-tasking. I suggested she implement a different process for working with that vendor and she was able to work on her own time and no longer needed to wait patiently on the phone and multi-task with another activity. Sometimes, you have to step back and look at the task itself, to see if there is a better way to do the task so multi-tasking isn’t needed.

    For myself, I have always preferred a silent background when working at home, preferring to mute the t.v. or whatever so I can focus. I am also noticing that more and more vendors, are filling the air space with commercials-commercials that come on when I am pumping gas (a t.v. screen with ads plays while you pump) and even at the grocery store while I am in the checkout lane (a screen plays commercials while you wait in line).
    I find this quite annoying. Sometimes, I appreciate a little quiet time.

    On the flip side, I do find myself multi-tasking whenever I have to wait for something, I can’t stand to just let time go by when I could be getting something done.

    I find that over the course of the day though, that I need to take a few minutes out to do nothing. Taking 1- 15 minutes to sit and do nothing, just decompress after work while waiting for my son’s bus to arrive, is awesome. That little bit of nothing in the middle of the day, makes a huge difference, especially on days when the To DO list is extremely long.

  24. posted by Michael H on

    Multi-tasking can be pretty tempting, but I think I do much better when I’m working on just one thing. Sometimes that includes turning the music off.

  25. posted by Mark - Productivity501 on

    Multitasking sometimes is considered “good” because that is how computers work. However, computers are designed so very little time is lost between switching tasks. That isn’t usually true for humans. If someone claims to be a great multi tasker here is an easy test. Give them two sheets of paper. Each sheet of paper has three multiplication problems all consisting of 3 digit numbers. Have them work through the problems one piece of paper one at a time. Have them work through the problems on another piece of paper while multitasking between problems–do one calculation and then move to the next problem and do one calculation, etc.

    The second method will take far longer. That is the downside of multitasking.

  26. posted by Shelly on

    Mark,
    That is a terrible example because no value is added by multitasking. You’re right, there is downtime involved in switching tasks, but _good_ multi-taskers have very minimal downtime.

    Surgery is a good example of where multi-tasking is valuable. A surgeon has to be able to interpret a variety of signals and, in the event of a problem, be able to act very quickly on it. If they had to pause and think before getting out the defibrillators it would be bad news for the patient.

    I also find fault with your computer example. Multi-tasking doesn’t mean running parallel processes in the brain like a computer can. It doesn’t mean thinking about two things at once – it just means having several tasks in progress at once and being able to quickly switch between them.

  27. Profile photo of Erin Doland

    posted by Erin Doland on

    @Eve — That’s not always the case. Many people with AADD and ADHD have the ability to hyperfocus.

  28. posted by Shelly on

    Yes, hyperfocus is great! Now if only it could be turned off and on with a switch…

  29. posted by Shalom on

    Multi-tasking is highly overrated. But it IS good to keep lists around, so you don’t forget the other things you need to get to . . . eventually.

  30. posted by Anne on

    I really enjoy multi-tasking, but manly so I can get it all done for a mono-non task. Getting it done quickly and effectively in order to enjoy something else.
    Example my house clean, dinner prepped, kids homework done, and an afternoon with out pondering what needs to be done, so one of my kids can sit next to me and tell me about thier day. I multi-task so I can mono focus on my family,

  31. posted by Fernando Imperator on

    Well, after reading some articles about mono-tasking specially from Leo (Zen Habits), I’ve been practicing it for a couple weeks. I strated doing it in the things I have pleasure doing. For example, I had the habit of having breakfest while checking my e-mails, now I have the breakfest first, enjoy the food completely and save a little bit of orange juice to drink reading e-mails. The sensation is really different.

    I do listen to my iPod most part of the time I’m not communicating or reading, but is important to not let it come first over your friends and family. Once you are talking with somebody, take those earphones off, it shows respect and openness.

    About resetting the objects after finishing one task at a time, this is totally true.

  32. posted by Nxqd3051990 on

    I myself honestly tell that I sometimes multitask but not with high-focus needed action. But I know if i do one task at a time, it’ll be much faster and better. I try to avoid multitask AMAP

  33. posted by Dee on

    Ok – lots to absorb here! As an ADDer whose prized for my multi-tasking abilities at work I can see how one would think that multi-tasking in some senses is actually unproductive. . ie, too many things going on = less attention to one task and less efficiency. I actually had a funny experience, I went on meds for my ADD and the change was EXTREMELY noticeable to my boss in terms of my turn around ability. Productivity went down the toilet! It was so embarrassing to have to tell my boss that medication was playing a roll in my inability to multi-task. After some experimentation I found that meds help me at home where monotasking for organizational purposes are key and then I go sans meds at work to enable me to work at high speed. I do not have hyperactivity – just your run of the mill ADD. That said, I am an organized multi-tasker at work. I have learned to uber organize files, references, projects so that if I succumb to the feeling of needing to switch tasks I have “filler” work that I can then go to which is waiting for my attention. . .being a writer, big and small projects are constantly interuppted by IM, e-mail, co-workers, urgent projects that pop up, etc. but having a natural gift for multi-tasking enables me to stay on top of everything if I keep my organized system in place. So in some ways, multi-taskers that have ADD are actually on top of the heap when it comes to productivity and the ability to meet deadlines and push out work. I realized long ago that the difference between multi-tasking at work and multi-tasking at home is that my work productivity is not burdened by the emotional “clutter” that I experience at home – which is why mono-tasking is key for me when I am doing anything productive at home if that makes sense to anyone.

  34. posted by Fran on

    YES. I find this conversation very helpful. I have so many tasks running all the time that I don’t even enjoy it when I get something finished!…too many other things left to do to enjoy the accomplishment.

    And while we’re on the subject, how do we teach our kids this value? I find that most teens are texting so much that they have no time for ‘face to face’ interaction. Not only is this ineffective, but rude and compulsive.

  35. posted by Mary on

    I appreciate Shelly’s comments and feel like she is making some very good points!

    My annual performance review includes rating my ability to be able to be flexible and to adapt to ever changing priorities. I often have to monitor a system as it is going into production while working on a current project and responding to problems as they occur.

    Note this is not the same thing to me as constantly checking a Blackberry during a professional or a personal conversation. If someone needs to talk to me while I’m monitoring a system at work, I explain what’s going on and give them the option of trying to converse or postponing our conversation for a better time. It all works out and the people I deal with like working with me.

  36. posted by Laura on

    A lot of these comments also highlight a difference in learning styles – kinetic learners absorb info better while they’re moving – hence listening to a lecture while knitting helps them ‘hear better’.

    I am not of this ilk. My husband actually has to remind me, ‘put that down, I want to talk to you’ because I can’t even do mindless things (like unload the dishwasher) and hold a conversation at the same time.

    Despite that, I am very able to manage multiple projects at work – it’s just that some times is mono’tasking time.

    Great discussion.

  37. posted by Shelly on

    Laura,
    I have never heard of “kinetic learners” but that is very interesting. I find it _much_ easier to listen in meetings if I’m doodling away. I also have a hard time sitting through movies without doing something at the same time, which is why I often crochet (and I used to do this during lectures as well). Perhaps I am a kinetic learner? I thought it was just mild ADD and I needed a bit of extra stimulation. Maybe there is a correlation between ADDers and kinetic learners??

  38. posted by Josephine on

    I need to clarify what I meant when I wrote “unfortunately” multi-tasking is viewed as a good thing. Granted, multi-tasking is quite useful as long as it’s not disruptive or rude (IM while on the phone, BlackBerry while in a meeting). My point is that you won’t see a job listing where the ability to mono-task is listed as desirable. I happen to do well with both multi- and mono-tasking (although once I hit 43, my short-term memory began to diminish), but in my experience mono-tasking is a rarity. Years ago I was working in a medical school when a doctor walked in to ask me a question (mind you, I never dealt with emergencies). I was engrossed in the task at hand that I did not hear him. Eventually, he got my attention but marveled at my intense concentration.

  39. posted by chrispian on

    Multi-Tasking isn’t really even possible. It’s not like you can write code AND draw something in photoshop at the same time. You can Task-Switch, but you can’t do both at once.

    What people generally mean by multi-tasking is that they are splitting their time and focus between several projects at once. They may feel like they are doing more, but they are probably doing less due to lack of focus on one task.

    I don’t mind task-switching when I’m working on low-level stuff (checking email, rss, twitter, music, etc.) or watching tv while folding clothes or hitting the treadmill. Some days I spend all day task-switching. Others I spend all day on one coding project or design project. Every job has different requirements on my attention.

  40. posted by Ed Svoboda on

    When at all possible I try to focus on just one thing and do just one thing. Just because my mind can think about four to six things at once doesn’t mean that this is effective.

    Sometimes what I will do is have a couple of tasks going at the same time but I only work at one of them at a time. Task switching can be a boon to productivity if you are engaged in certain tasks that have periods of things happening behind the scenes that don’t require your attention.

  41. posted by Michael on

    Wouldn’t mono-tasking be the same as Uni-tasking? Gasp.

  42. posted by Kim on

    One thing many people forget is that people are not cookie cutters. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. In education we look at the various learning styles that people have and use. There are those that can multi-task and infact work better when they multi-task. Others stink at it and can’t do it. google learning styles if you aren’t familiar with them. It makes for interesting reading.

  43. posted by Unlinks | UnYourself on

    [...] Do you really need to multi-task? from Unclutterer (The answer is no, focus!) [...]

  44. posted by Debbie on

    All of the comments have been very interesting and helpful. However, I am a manager of several employees in a fast-paced office setting. Multi-tasking, or rapidly switching focus is a requirement for both productivity and customer satisfaction. Unfortunately I have one employee that cannot do this effectively. Anyone have any ideas on coaching tips for this situation? She is a long time employee of the business, extremely loyal and dependable (never misses a day of work) but is not as productive as the others -becoming a tough situation! Suggestions?

  45. posted by moussaoui ahmed on

    ok merci a toute mes amie je ne voiyé pas les chose bien claire

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