Multitasking: How To Do It And Do It Well

Is it really a good idea to do more than one thing at a time? Many say no, but I think yes.
Is it really a good idea to do more than one thing at a time? Many say no, but I think yes.
Is it really a good idea to do more than one thing at a time? Many say no, but I think yes, though only if you do it properly.

People often say that multi-tasking is bad for productivity. I appreciate what they say. In my understanding of the common criticisms of multitasking, it is better to focus on one task at a time and do it fully and thoroughly before moving on to the next because not only does this enhance the quality of your work in the particular task in question (full concentration and no distraction etc), it also minimises the amount of time needed to get back into it and re-adjust if/when you revisit the task after leaving it half-done. These are all good and intuitive reasons for doing things one at a time. However, I must admit (with guilt) that I rather enjoy doing more than one thing simultaneously, and I say this not because I like to have lack of focus in my approach towards my work, but rather I find myself working better when I am doing multiple things at the same time. When I maximise my concentration on one thing, I can only sustain it for a limited amount of time (say, half an hour), because after a certain period of time my internal system gets tired and bored of the task at hand, which constitutes what psychologists call ‘saturation’. At this point, I simply cannot proceed with the task at hand anymore and need to switch tasks just to keep my system alive and receptive (and keep my interest flowing). I hence enjoy alternating between important tasks one after another (and yes, there is ALWAYS more than one thing to be done at any given time), and I often get more than one thing done within a limited time. People argue on good evidence (see above) that it is better to focus on one thing and do it really well, but my body tells me that this is not necessarily the best method for me.

My predilection for multitasking also correlates with my view that slow and thorough preparation yields genuine quality. The former habit may be against popular opinion on work efficiency, but the latter should be relatively uncontroversial. Recently, I have tried combining these two techniques and have discovered some great benefits. I have had a busy yet fun time designing my personal webpage (for those of you who do not know, I have launched my personal webpage which is up and running and is constantly undergoing revisions in accordance with the news in my life- do please visit it if interested), and while creating my own personal webspace is a hugely gratifying experience, the actual process of making it is really quite complex. I shan’t bore my readers with the technical details here, but for those of you who are familiar with computational terms, HTML and https are both very useful codes to use on any internet domain, since they are both standard tools for connecting your webpage to another website online. The difficulty here is, in addition to the writing of the codes, they are often difficult to load, since although these codes are embedded in your cyber-domain, they contain external links to another website for which a real-time connection needs to be established. I like HTML and https, since not only are they useful for the reasons given above, they also look very beautiful (if correctly written) and can serve as nice decorations on one’s webpage. I have tried to insert as many of them as I can to breathe some life into my webpage. However, the more codes I put in, the slower it gets to load them, since a page full of such codes is extremely difficult to load, let alone to make. I have had some trouble embedding HTML and https into my website lately, since it is frustrating waiting for minutes (if not hours) for the code-patches to load up when I just want to be done with them. However, all this unwanted waiting-time has actually given me rather a lot of time to do some other things, since, as mentioned before, there are always things waiting for me to do, and rather than wait for one thing to finish, it is much more efficient to start on another thing and let the first thing to take care of itself. This way what was initially a time-wasting congestion has turned out to be a constructive use of time, since by multitasking i.e. doing several things simultaneously by alternating between them, I can actually get a lot more done and much quicker.

I have defended my habit of multitasking before, and I have my reasons. Psychologists argue that doing multiple things at once reduces one’s productivity and ability to focus which in turn diminishes one’s efficiency and the quality of one’s work. There is probably a lot of truth in that, since focussing on one thing 100% can clearly yield better results that just 50% and expend the other 50% on something else, which is hardly rocket science. However, I still find multitasking a useful strategy in getting things done, since after focussing on one thing for too long my mental energy gets depleted to the extent that I can no longer do it anymore, which, in popular parlance, is known as ‘feeling saturated’. At this stage, it becomes futile to keep digging into the task at hand since without the initial spark of interest the task does become a bit of a drab, and not one that can yield treasures either. I hence feel compelled to switch tasks and move on to something else, preferably one that I have not done in a while so as to reinvigorate my mental system, and it usually works, not only in terms of seizing time (carpe diem!) in getting as much work done as possible (let’s face it- we always have more than one thing to tend to at a certain time and switching tasks is as easy as it is impossible to avoid) but also as a way of refreshing my body in view of coming back to the original task later on with a much higher level of interest and enthusiasm, which can undoubtedly boost my productivity and efficiency. This, again, is hardly rocket science, and in fact scientists also advise that one exercise as feasibly as possible during one’s workday so as to get one’s blood flowing and avoid mental/physical stagnation. It does seem paradoxical and self-contradictory that one is advised to stay focussed on one thing and move around at the same time, but it all boils down to finding the magic optimum between extremes and avoiding extremist and simplistic tendencies. It all makes sense, and it is not rocket science.

Multitasking can be seen as an efficient use of one’s time too, since, diversion of attention and focus notwithstanding, it can be very effective if used properly. Think of it abstractly: each task requires a certain amount of time to get done. If we put all the tasks that need to be done (and there are indeed a lot of them) in one single sequence, we spend a maximum amount of time in getting all of them done. If, on the other hand, we design goalposts and junctions for switching tasks, we may be able to save some time, which, in the long run, may end up being a lot of time. Take a look at this diagram:

Surely keeping several things going saves time?
Surely keeping several things going saves time?
An abstract schema for how time flows, the top line representing the completion of tasks sequentially (i.e. doing one thing at a time) and the two lines below showing the effects of alternating between tasks and doing them concurrently (i.e. multitasking).

It is a mathematical axiom that doing things concurrently requires shorter time than doing them one after another, but clearly one must not switch between tasks too often or too quickly, or one would never make any progress in anything or get anything done, since, as warned by pscyhologists, one’s attention span goes awry if one does not buckle down on the task at hand. As mentioned before, I like to switch tasks when the task at hand is in limbo i.e. it does not require my immediate attention and can take care of itself, let it be running a program on my devices, scanning documents that I have just read, inserting footnotes in a paper that I have just written. These pockets of self-automation which can be processed by efficient machines are what I call ‘dead pockets’, and rather than wait for these self-automated processes to finish, I would seize the opportunity to start another task and make headway into it, since such ‘dead pockets’ are in effect chunks of time where one can end up being inactive and unproductive, and the difference lies in whether one recognises such ‘dead pockets’ and make the most out of them by working in their duration rather than passively wait for them to complete. The key in maximising efficiency in time management, therefore, may lie in minimising the number and length of ‘dead pockets’ in one’s working routine, and one can make more progress in one’s multitasked lives by being active for as long as one can. After all, active engagement is far more powerful and effective than passive observance, even though the latter is clearly fundamental for a successful execution of the former. Time is often our biggest enemy, since although we are always in need of more of it, we constantly feel the need for it. As the old saying goes, ‘there are simply not enough hours in the day to get things done’. It is time to make time our closest ally in moving forward.

This approach of multitasking may also improve the quality of one’s work. ‘Patience is a virtue.’ A commonly known piece of wisdom which has been repeated to us many times (certainly to me). Sometimes things do not happen immediately, and by rushing them and forcing the end result we merely undermine the quality of our work and sabotage our chances of achieving the best possible result. This seems to indicate that slow heat is better than fast heat and doing things over a long stretch of time may well yield better results than last-minute frantic insertions (though see my blog on the advantages of the latter). It is difficult, however, to be patient all the time, especially in our busy lives where we are constantly on a tight schedule to get things done and there is simply no time to waste by waiting around. Often it does boil down to: Get it done now or nothing. The quick pace of modern life has bred a lot of impatience in us, and this has a knock-on negative effect not only on the quality of our work but also on our mental state, as we often end up being anxious and hyper-sensitive when things do not go our way immediately. As mentioned before, I like multitasking, since it allows me to eliminate a lot of dead space in my time management, and another advantage of alternating between tasks is that it also removes a lot of stress in me, since rather than biting my nails waiting for something to happen, I can perhaps let the process take care of itself, which is sometimes essential for getting the best results (as the saying goes in cooking, let it brew/breathe), and I can use the waiting-time to tend to some other task(s) waiting for me to do. The numerous advantages of this form of multitasking include time efficiency, quality enhancement, and most importantly mental health since I find it much more comforting to just let things go for a bit while concentrating on some other thing. It really improves my mood when I switch effortlessly between tasks, and when I get back to the original task, it always looks much better to me after having breathed for a while and I can approach it with fresh eyes and make it even better. Really not bad at all.

I frequently hear stories about multitasking being inefficient and unproductive in the modern age, and there may be a lot of cognitive basis for these criticisms, but from a practical point of view keeping our lives constantly moving by getting several things going at the same time can be a very effective way of working. I guess we all work differently and it is not always conducive (or even possible) to prescribe universal methods of working/training. After all, we need to find the best way for oneself, and this we can only discover for ourselves and not from others. What works for others may not work for you. Keep looking for what works best for you, as there is always a way. Don’t give up.

Originally published at keithtselinguist.wordpress.com.

#Linguist #DataScientist #Columnist #Balliol #Oxford #Manchester #York #Ronin #IGDORE #Scholar.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store