Stop Trying to Multitask.
You’re Terrible at It.

This article is a slightly longer and more coherent version of a lightning talk I gave at the NICAR Conference in 2015.

I design and build news apps for The Wall Street Journal, and I’m here to tell you about multitasking and why you shouldn’t do it.

Programming is hard. It’s s a very memory-intensive activity. When you’re fully engaged, you’re keeping track of a lot of information: variable names and values, data structures and entry points, and an elaborate Jenga tower of interdependent logic.

And you’re doing it in the chaos of a newsroom.

I actually work remote from St. Louis, Missouri, but that doesn’t absolve me of distractions. Anyone can get ahold of me at any moment, and I’m still accountable for several projects at once.

My typical workday is spent switching between three types of tasks:

  1. Maintenance: Edits and additions to projects already published.
  2. Planning: Meetings and coordination for future projects.
  3. My current project: The thing I’m actually supposed to be doing, and the project in which I’m most immersed. Ideally I have only one current project. That’s not always the case.

But here’s the thing — when we split time, we lose time. We lose it opening and closing files, reacquainting ourselves with old code and adjusting our brains to new and opposing contexts.

This chart is borrowed from SCRUM: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland. But the original idea is actually credited to Gerald Weinberg and appears in his book Quality Software Management, Vol. 1.

This chart originates from the book Quality Software Management Volume 1, by Gerald Weinberg. Weinberg’s idea is that you lose time switching between tasks. If you have one task in front of you, 100 percent of your time is available for it. If you have two tasks, each gets 40 percent of your time while 20 percent is lost in transition. The more you take on, the worse it gets.

Don’t believe it? Try the following exercise. On a sheet of paper, write five columns of characters by category: 1–10, A-J, 3–30 by threes, 2–20 by twos and the first letter of the first ten months of the year. Then, try doing it again, but this time write in rows. Not as easy is it?

Our brains are lousy at switching between tasks, and there is plenty of research to support it.

A 2009 study conducted at Stanford tested self-described high multitaskers and people who preferred to take on one thing at a time. They found that high multitaskers — the people who tried to make the most of their time by taking on several things at once — couldn’t pay attention, control their memory or switch tasks as well as those who prefer to take do one thing at a time. In other words, the people who multitasked the most were the worst at it.

Attention is a finite resource. You begin your day strong and full of energy. You sit at your desk, drink your coffee and see your work fresh and clearly. Have you ever had the experience of being stuck on a problem at the end of the day only to come in the next morning and solve it right away? There’s research that helps to explain this as well.

A 2010 study published by the American Academy of Sciences looked at more than 1,100 parole hearings in Israeli courts. They found that prisoners who went before parole boards in the morning received a favorable ruling 65 percent of the time. Those who appeared in the afternoon received a favorable ruling less than 10 percent of the time. What was different? The judges had to process a lot of information over the course of the day, and each case ended in a high-stakes decision. It wore them down.

The more decisions you make during the day, the harder it gets to think critically. With diminished mental resources, you’re more likely to either make poor decisions, or as was likely the case with judges, no decisions at all.

How to fix it.

So what should you be doing? As an individual, you can start by building fences. Your time belongs to you, and you should protect it.

Turn off email for an hour or two at a time. Everybody’s work situation is different, but most of us could probably get away with unplugging for a block of time during the day.

Try to do tasks in order rather than switching between them. Block off hours at a time for one individual task, set a goal, then move on to the next task once the goal is reached.

Compartmentalize distractions. For example, diagnosing and fixing software bugs can be a significant drain on a developer’s time. When you discover a bug, it’s tempting to stop what you’re doing and try to fix it right away. But if you work on a team, it may be more productive to file a ticket so that you or someone else can give it the dedicated time and attention the task deservers.

Finally, figure out what works for you. Yeah, I wrote this thing, but I’m actually pretty terrible at managing multitasking in my own work life. But I’m working on it.

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