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Multi-Tasking reality or just fad? September 18th, 2011

Vinod Kumar

In this fast paced IT life, I have come across many questions – how do you manage to do so many things at the same time? More so, have seen on certain job-description asking special mention on Multi-tasking. Just thought will take a stab at this very topic.

Let us first try to understand what is multi-tasking, why need multi-tasking and ultimately in a job how can you measure multi-tasking (not as per employer but ourselves).

What – Well, doing 2-3 things at once or in quick succession can be coined as multi-tasking. In my opinion this is just going to make you less efficient than doing them one-by-one. I also try to do a number of things in parallel but more often get blind-sighted of the fact that that more than the start, it is the finish that counts. Giving an commitment and not sticking to it is one of the biggest mistake one can do. I generally have a tendency to ask for more time and deliver it before time so that there are no expectations broken and you are with lesser stress. Toughest part is to negotiate this well with the person whom you work.

Juggling multiple activities can also bring down the quality of work that you do. Every time you switch between tasks you have to reset on your thinking process and you might become myopic on the short term problems that you are more likely to miss out on the long term impact. Even inside software engineering this is critical so that future architectural changes are not required just because you are trying to do a hotfix for a problem today.

“Multitasking is great, if it exists but practically it doesn’t”

Why – The inner drive to do more with less is always something that pushes us hard every single day and this is something that is keeping us busy too. This is more of a desire than reality. Multi-tasking can be achieved easier if the tasks you are performing involves different part of your attention. Try watching movie and listening to a song from PC at the same time. This requires genuine mental effort and attention that cannot be mimicked. Doing background activities is absolutely fine when the task moves away from conscious level to mundane sub-conscious mind – like listening to music while you are in a gym or enjoying music while eating etc.

Just saw this wonderful article on NYTimes, which states that based on a sampling of employees inorder to get back to serious work like coding after responding to email requires atleast 15 mins. I agree to the argument, though it might not be in the same capacity. There is surely a serious productivity loss because of multi-tasking.

Not Single Minded but focused and creative

We all know we are not super-humans nor have capabilities of a fictional superman. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when we devote all our attention to the task in hand, we cut all out distractions from our environment, and can even lose our sense of self. In a nut shell the talk bring out, when you are in flow -

  1. You get completely involved and your focus and concentration levels are on the high.
  2. Clarity on progress – how we are doing and what needs to be done.
  3. The end is clear as we are doing the task in hand.

Concentration is critical to outstanding creativity and this is the reason why people do meditation or yoga.

Interested in the TED Talk –

No loss of signal

In my opinion there are multiple factors that need to decide if the task is multi-taskable or not. There must be NO loss on any of the following attributes when doing multi-tasking -

  1. Listening skills
  2. Decision Making
  3. Attention to details
  4. Problem solving
  5. Following instructions / procedures
  6. Oral Communication
  7. Customer Focus (at work)

Conclusion

BTW, if you are thinking what inspired me to explore this very topic – well I was on call with a call-center person who was struggling to get information about me while processing the problem I was explaining and checking the system for possible resolution (all at once). I had to slow down and was frustrated of the experience. After doing my homework now I realize that is surely a tough job to be in with special skills too.

So do you believe in multi-tasking? What has been the effects of the same on you? Feel free to share your experience.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, September 18th, 2011 at 10:13 and is filed under Personal, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


10 Responses to “Multi-Tasking reality or just fad?”

  1. [...] generally decrease effectiveness, efficiency or productivity. Please refer the very nice article as “Multi-Tasking reality or just fad?”Checking emails constantly: – Some people checking their email constantly while they are [...]

  2. I call it “being in the zone”.

    When you’re doing something being in the zone, you’ll finish that task in much lesser time than you do it with Multitasking approach.

    As Komal Patel said, you’ve to again check out the things to get into the zone and finish the task that you put aside earlier. In many companies people do have email clients open and IT Manager keep on sending client updates to developer to get things done quickly without thinking that it might take longer than the finishing the “One task at a time” approach. Even If it takes less time, quality of the task done must not be up to the expectation.

    Thanks for the post!

  3. [...] think this something similar to the multi-tasking conversation we had on this blog. This can be the most common mistake we make – trying to experiment too much [...]

  4. Komal Patel says:

    Pinal – I agree with you that Multitasking is a part of DNA, and this skills is not achieved by every people, very few people with this ability.

    I have personal experienced, while performing Multitasking at the same time. Its difficult to set the mind on the particular task. Like I am Developer and Analyst. I am doing some code for Project and suddenly got some clients mail and have to start analysis and stop the code. At that time mind easily divert on that task.. Once completed that task and again when start the code have to start from the initial.. I think its most often thing which is happened with every one and ultimtely at the end the output is not 100% means it required more time and sometimes we feel that at a time should have to do only one task. But as you reach on the top level the responsibility comes and one must have to do Multitask. So, Still confused having Multiple skill is good or it reduced the productivity in IT Industry..

    • Vinod Kumar says:

      Komal – Nice observation. It is critical to understand that multi-tasking is a “good-to-have” competency. Being a smart worker and able to “handle” multiple tasks and yet do justice to all is something everyone dreams of having.

      It is just like computing, your active thread can be just one task while there can be multiple background threads. You must master the art of deligation if need be to finish much of the activities in time.

  5. [...] as you are always switching and thinking of the future. I wrote a post recently on the very art of multi-tasking which in my opinion is a fad [...]

  6. Vinod Kumar says:

    Pinal – Well, not that it can be in our DNA, it is just that we force it to be part of DNA in attempt to do many things at the same time :)

    Ayappan – You are on the money. It can become stressful after a while !!!

    Aravind – Thanks for dropping a note. Yes it is a skill to some extend. But I see this can cause a lot of distractions too. Hence for efficiency for yourself, it is sometimes important to cut the fluff and concentrate in completing the task in hand. All the more that I have seen people who close their Mail during the day and they say it increases the productivity. So even effective managers do that. I know a lot of them to reduce the stress do Yoga or meditation of some sorts. Just ping around and see, you will be amazed. Also reports say, people with such stress levels have loss of memory early.

  7. Aravind Deivendran says:

    In my personal experience I have seen few people(not many) doing multitasking with ease without any issues. At the other end, I have also seen people when they are working on something wont even listen to anything else and both of them are top performers. I feel this is linked to his/her brain is wired.

    //sampling of employees inorder to get back to serious work like coding after responding to email requires atleast 15 mins.//

    Something which may be true with majority of people. But again I have seen people who can change context in few secs. So I think multitasking is also a skill, which comes easily for few and with difficulty for others(like any other skill – communication or problem solving).

    I also have personal success trying to multitask. For example I can listen to my colleague asking a doubt and type a mail and then reply to him(Hope this is defined as multi tasking :)). But I think multitasking have to be tried considering the following factors.

    1. Are you good at it? If not forget it. It is just another skill, try with what you are good at.
    2. Does the task you are doing needs your 100%. In theory all the tasks you do need your 100% but in practice it might not.
    3. What would be the effect of loss of quality in the task you are performing? Again in theory loss of quality is not accepted at any cost. In practice, a reduction by 50% of time for a slight loss of quality is ok(which is again task dependent).
    4. Does the job you are doing is so complex that you cant do multitask?(writing a complex algorithm vs writing code comments)
    5. Do you really have the time crunch to try multi tasking. If not just go with the single task.

    I have seen the mandatory requirement for multi tasking with people who have deliveries to do at the same time mentor/manage a team. Even though, the activities for the team are well laid out, there would be interrupts in between. In these scenarios, it is a must for them to do multi tasking.

    In short multitasking is tool which needs to be used with discretion. And some are good in using that.

  8. Ayyappan says:

    In my view, multitasking is an incomplete action which does not have definite result. It may succeed or fail or abandon or partial result. We can remember multiple things at a time but doing multiple things is nothing but unlocking the room of stress.

  9. Pinal Dave says:

    This is my favorite subject to talk.

    I personally struggle to do lots of things together and way early on the hand. Most of the time, I get success doing the same but quite often I feel that is it worth it. Should I focus on one thing at a time and do it best and give it best or spread my attention to multiple things and get best out of the time. Most of the time while doing multitasking I end up doing something not as efficient as I would have done paying it attention 100%.

    Well, answer is balance – I fail to balance it personally. I often do not know where to draw line and where not to.

    Overall – multitasking is my blood and hard to remove it – should I call it part of our DNA?

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