Productivity Improvement | 04.23.2013

Does Multitasking Work? Busting The Popular Myth

As software engineers learning about storage technologies one of the first things we encounter is the file system, how it stores data in blocks that need not be contiguous, and how this kind of fragmentation can slow down the retrieval of data. This teaches us that contiguous is good and fragmentation is bad. And yet, despite knowing this, we almost always end up fragmenting our focus under the guise of multi-tasking.

Why do we multi-task?

We’ve perhaps been too influenced by how computers seem to multi-task so effortlessly. And yet, even with computers what really happens under the hood is that they do only one task at a time and switch rapidly between many such tasks, thus giving the impression of multi-tasking. Unfortunately, humans are not designed for that kind of rapid context switching. Recent research suggests that only about 2% of people can effectively multi-task and that for the remaining 98% it can do more harm than good.

Multi-tasking also makes us feel like we’re accomplishing a lot more when the truth is that it can actually cause a 40% drop in productivity, lower IQ by 10 points, and waste as much as 2.1 hours in a typical day on distractions. For example, if I was not watching an IPL match while trying to write this blog post, I would have probably gotten it done in half the time!

In all seriousness though, a much better strategy for those of us in the 98% is to focus on one task at a time. In other words, we need to defrag our focus to deliver better results.

Defragging focus

Defragging our focus is similar to defragging the hard disk. This means we need to try and do each task for a longer contiguous period of time in order to get it done faster and with better quality. This is also somewhat similar to what sportspeople call getting in the zone. When we are in the zone, our mind is totally focused on the one thing we are trying to get done. When we just cannot seem to type the words as fast as our brain is forming them, or when the code almost seems to write itself without any conscious effort on our part – then, we are in the zone. The problem is that getting in the zone takes time and it is quite easy to get knocked out of it by some distraction. At the same time, there are also many techniques for getting in the zone and staying there. The critical thing is to find out what works best for each particular individual and then to leverage it repeatedly for best results.

Sapience advantage

Sapience automatically shows you the Average Uninterrupted Time on One Activity, and also the pattern of distractions in the Flow Time report. Data collected from more than 30,000 active users and over 26 million hours suggests that users generally have an average uninterrupted time on one activity between 2 and 10 minutes. That means we do not spend more than 10 minutes on any one activity at a stretch.

This number may seem surprising to many of us who take pride in our focus, but data doesn’t lie, and knowing and understanding these patterns can help us to change and improve over time, and deliver predictable and consistently spectacular results.