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Why “Multitasking” Slows Productivity — And What To Do About It

— Forget multitasking, rediscover monotasking

computing_overload_man.gif“External notifications” — e-mail, instant messages, and the like — distract workers away from their primary tasks for an average of nine minutes. Worse, it takes these workers ten to fifteen minutes to get back on task, according to an article entitled “Disruption and Recovery of Computing Tasks” by researchers Eric Horvitz and Shamsi Iqbal.

The research was performed at Microsoft, the company that for the past fourteen years has been striving to get into the business of creating online tools and services that disrupt work. Apparently they’re now succeeding; every interruption consumed nearly a half hour of Microsoft employee time, according to Horvitz and Iqbal’s study.

Half an hour sounds about right the way I’ve been going lately. In fact, using that calculation I spend 28.3 hours each day being offtask.

Let’s be honest: “Multitasking” and “external notifications” are euphemisms for interruptions.

Having worked in the Internet professional services sector, I’m an expert on computer-generated interruptions. But I saw the light some eight years ago, and since have been extolling the virtues of avoiding e-mail, fixing a dysfunctional PC-dominated workspace, and turning off the computer.

But in past weeks, I’ve strayed from those ideals, because people have actually started reading Soul Shelter and commenting. In fact, our blog now has more than 1,100 subscribers (a thousand is a piddling number compared to the big blogs, but for us, it’s an enormous milestone, especially considering that we’re such lousy marketers).computing_overload_man_right.gif

The downside of Soul Shelter‘s modest popularity is that the interruptions are more frequent and more intriguing. So today I’m writing to remind myself that “multitasking” slows, rather than boosts, productivity. Here are four things I keep discovering over and over again:

Forget multitasking, rediscover monotasking
Every time I begin the day by not turning on the computer — and instead sit down with pen, paper, a clear focus on a single task (and a firm resolve to avoid “urgent” tasks) — my productivity soars.

Creativity on, CPU off
I can’t think of a less inspiring, more isolating work posture than sitting before a glowing monitor. Limiting PC use to recording, manipulating, or transmitting important information keeps productivity steady and spirits high.

Focus on the important
Facebook invitations, newspapers, 95% of e-mail, television, etc. have a common theme: Triviality. Protecting your soul in this wired age means focusing on what’s important — and important things rarely enter life via the computer, television, or popular media.

Never start a blog
At the risk of sounding hypocritical, never start a blog unless you really, really need to write. If you start a blog, you may find that you enjoy it, and start spending way too much time on it.

So there you have them: Four ways to avoid “multitasking” and do something about boosting productivity. In fact, I feel another Clark’s Rule coming on: I think I’ll call this one Clark’s Advice Regarding Multitasking Avoidance (CARMA):

Forget multitasking, rediscover monotasking.

Circling back to Microsoft: In an upcoming post I’ll describe how I once knocked Bill Gates flat on his back (I’m not making this up …).

* * * * *

Computer still on? You might enjoy these related essays:

Want to Achieve Your Goal? Avoid E-Mail!

Fixing a Broken Work Model

Is the Internet Dangerous? (Part One)”

One Way to Protect Your Soul in a Wired Age

The Lonely Novelist’s Five-Point Productivity Plan

4 Comments to Why “Multitasking” Slows Productivity — And What To Do About It

On Apr 23, 2009, Mary commented:

I agree with all of your points — especially #4! I started a blog just for fun, to amuse myself and my friends.

But the naturally curious and competitive person in me loves to learn more about blogging and seeing what others in my community are doing — and on and on until I end up going to bed at midnight most nights!

I haven’t enjoyed a new hobby so much in a long time. I just keep noticing that this fun keeps me up late and in front of my computer for hours.

On Apr 23, 2009, by Tim commented:

Yes, it can be addicting. I had to stop reflexively turning on the computer every morning to check for comments, traffic, et cetera. Hence my late response; didn’t click on the PC until 2 p.m. today! Cheer me on!

And best of luck with your blogging! :-)

On Apr 23, 2009, grover commented:

Though you may feel you are “lousy marketers” you can rest assured that you are great writers.

Thanks & keep it up!

On Apr 24, 2009, by Tim commented:

Thanks, Grover, for cheering us on! We will continue to “market” in our own writerly ways, against the tide of the second point in this essay, about how marketing trumps quality.

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