Productivity is Truth; Multitasking is a Lie

DarrylBrooks by Yi Liu on Unsplash

Remember the game you played as a child, where you had to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time? That was probably your first attempt at multitasking. Your failure to accomplish easily and the shoddy results once you could do it should have been your first clue.

Multitasking is Bullshit.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of people in the workplace don’t actually want to get anything done. They just want to look like they are. Think about the people where you work. Who gets the most attention and seem like they are the go-getters? The person sitting quietly, concentrating on a task, and accomplishing it? Or the person running here and there making a lot of noise about how busy they are? The person talking loudly on the phone while shoving papers on people’s desk, pointing and shouting, running back and forth? Yeah, that guy; the one “multitasking.”

For a brief time at one job, I reported to a guy that claimed to be a master at multitasking. He took great pride at always doing at least two things at once. When I gave a report on something, he was always on his computer. “Keep talking. I can listen to you and type this report at the same time.” I always worked the word, asparagus, into every conversation. He never once heard it or reacted to it. “Okay, thanks. Keep up the good work.” Why did a word like asparagus in a report on information technology not jump out to him and cause him to stop and say, “what?”

Because multitasking is bullshit.

Our attention span and ability to focus is a finite resource. There is a limit to it. How often have you heard someone say, “they gave it 100%?” Because that’s all you can give. You can give 100% to a task, or you can give 50% each to two tasks. This, in theory, means each task takes twice as long, so the net result is the same time to finish both, whether done simultaneously or one at a time. But it’s worse than that.

Much worse.

First, no matter how quickly, you switch back and forth. This takes time, effort, and concentration; no matter how little. But more important, it takes attention away from both tasks. You’re never fully invested in either because you are expecting the other.

We’ve all done this. You’re having a conversation with someone and there is something you want to say. What you have to say is brilliant. You can’t wait for the other person to stop talking so you can impress the world with your genius. They finally take a breath and you get your thought out. What happened? You didn’t hear or remember what the other person was talking about. You focused so hard on what you wanted to say, that you tuned them out, just waiting for the opportunity to speak. Why?

Because multitasking is bullshit.

Where did this concept come from? It came from the early days of personal computers when Windows was new. In the DOS days, your computer did one thing. If you wanted to do something else, you closed that thing and opened the other thing. Windows changed all that. Now you can multi-task. You can run as many programs at the same time as you want to. While this database is indexing, you can switch over here and do word processing.

But what happened every time you opened a new program? Even today with faster and multiple processors? That’s right. The computer slowed down. It’s not as noticeable today because of the speed and power of modern computers. But load up a bunch of programs and then open up Task Manager. Look at all those things running. What is at the top of each column? That’s right, a percentage. Because 100% is all you got. And every new task you pile on slows it down even more until finally, the system comes to a stall or crashes. Why?

Because multitasking is bullshit.

So, what do you do about it? That’s easy.

Just stop.

Focus on one thing before you move to the next. As the old Alka-Seltzer ad said, “Try it, you’ll like it.” It may be tough. You’ve been doing this multitasking thing so long it’s ingrained in your processes. But just try it.

Start small. The next time your phone rings at work, stop whatever you are doing. Answer the phone and talk to the person. Not only will you be able to give the conversation your full attention, but you will also relieve your stress level. Trying to finish what you were working on and talk on the phone at the same time is stressful. You’re wishing they would shut up so you can finish the sentence you were typing, and you’re constantly asking them to repeat themselves because you focused back on your work. Just do one. Then the other.

I wrote about how to stay focused. One concept put forth was clearing the decks when you finish work for the day. Close all computer programs, clear off your desk. Start fresh the next day. But try that throughout the day. Focus on one task until completion or you reach some important stopping point.

Like lunch.

Then clear the decks. Put everything away and close all the programs you had open. Take a deep breath. Perhaps follow the advice in my other article, How 20 Seconds Changed My Life. When you are ready to begin the next task, take out, and open what you need. Rinse and repeat. I guarantee you by the end of the day, you will not only have accomplished more, but you will feel less stressed. Why?

You already know the answer to that.

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I am a writer with over 16 years of experience and hundreds of articles. I write about photography, productivity, life skills, money management and much more.

Alpharetta, GA

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