Multitasking

Remember when operating systems came out and the big feature that they touted was their ability to offer a “true multitasking experience” or something along those lines? I mean, this happened within the last 20 years, give-or-take, so it wasn’t that long ago.

But if you ever used a machine prior that did not allow for multitasking, then it really did introduce an entire change into your workflow.

What?! Multiple applications open at the same time and I can share (read: copy and paste) data between them?

Now we can’t really imagine not having that, right? Our phones even do it. But short of whatever the next big technological advancement that we have in the computing industry may be, I think we have hit a massive point on the curve of our ability to multitask.

I know there’s research that says that we – as humans – are not actually able to multitask that well – and I think there is some truth to that – but I also have peers be able to do a much better job of it than I am. That’s completely fine with me, but the point of me bringing it up is that, you know, what works for some doesn’t work for others.

We’re all very different in our abilities to take advantage of this, but I don’t think I’m actually that great at it.

So Many Activities

I think that we’re at a point in computing history where the sheer number of things that we’re able to have open – that can demand our attention – is so much further than we may have ever thought it would be.

I mean, multiple applications, multiple browsers, multiple devices, and so on. And then we’ve got multitasking available per app – just think about multiple chat rooms in IRC or Slack or multiple tabs in a web browser.

And then we have these “companion” applications that work on our devices that allow us to pick up exactly where we left off on our desktop and continue reading and/or working on our mobile device without missing a beat.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s absolutely fascinating and I love that we have this ability.

But the more stuff that I end up using or the more stuff that comes our way, the more I realize how little I need to actually get work done and how much of a distraction so many tasks (or however many multitasks – or whatever the word is :) end up being.

I mean think about how easy it is to go an entire, say, hour and aim to get work done but not actually be productive at all.

Bummer.

When I sit down to work in the morning, I dig looking at the list of tasks that I need to work through throughout the day and then start getting stuff done. This goes from answering emails, writing a blog post, responding to phone calls, and then getting into the zone.

But there are so many other things that end up vying for attention, too – what about this chat room or that blog post or trying our that app or so and and so forth until the end of the day comes and I’ve still got an inbox full of email and a partially drafted blog post.

What if I miss out on something amazing? What if I miss out on being on the inside of the next big inside joke?

Sure, I’m exaggerating a bit, but you know the feeling I’m talking about.

That feeling sucks.

Do Something About It

At some point, I think we hit a point where we decide to let it consume us and bleed out of procrastination, or we tie it off and then do something about it.

What I’ve done is what works for me. This isn’t advice, it’s not prescriptive – I’d never say “Hey, if you just do these things, then you’d be more productive, too.!”

I’m not selling that. I’m not selling anything.

With that said, over the last few years I’ve found that drastically cutting down on social media has helped me a lot:

  • I’m off Facebook
  • I’m off Instagram
  • I don’t leave Twitter open all day (I’ll open it, tweet, respond, etc., then close it)
  • I use apps to manage the things that I really should do
  • I don’t participate in a lot of chat rooms
  • I don’t attend a lot of meet ups
  • I’m cutting down on the number of emails I even respond to (I know, this comes off as really rude and it’s deserving of its own post. The struggle is real.)
  • And so on.

Some of these things I want to do – like go to more meet ups or to speak more – the challenge right now, though, isn’t so much time in productivity as it is the stage that my [growing] family. It’s priorities.

Other things, like Facebook, I deliberately avoid nor want to be a part of – but that’s another post.

Then there are things like certain chat rooms (or channels) that I’d love to be more active in because of the people who are there, the discussions that take place, and so on, but I simply can’t focus on both the work I need to do and the conversations in which I want to participate, so I have to prioritize.

Again, it’s just me and it’s how I’m built.

So that’s what works for me. Maybe there’s more to write about this in a future post, or maybe this is just a one-off sharing my own personal experience with dealing with the challenges of working online most of the day.

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Join the conversation! 14 Comments

  1. Whoa. I think I needed to hear this, today.

    And on the same day on ChurchMag: http://churchm.ag/multitasking-myth/

  2. I read something similar the other day about multitasking and phones:

    “Push notifications are actually pulling you away of whatever you do”.

    It was a good one, fairly legit as well.

    While I know that you’re not advocating anything (but rather sharing your own thoughts and experience), I’d like to add that some tasks do not require your full attention (or could do without it). Such as:

    Long chat with a client who’s not a fast typist
    Compiling or migrating data (that takes minutes or half an hour)
    Doing a bunch of things while traveling (instead of just sitting idle in a bus or at the airport)

    That said, trying to program, discuss business, fix financial reports and invoices and read Facebook at the same time is hardly productive, but there are things that could be combined in a way that isn’t truly distracting.

    Just my 2 cents of course.

    • “Push notifications are actually pulling you away of whatever you do”.

      Yes 1000x. This is why I turn off most notifications except those directly related to my family and I use an email client that pulls email (rather than pushes it) so I can check email (rather than having it check me :).

      I also think everything you’ve listed make sense. There are even some people who I work with frequently who I am seeing about spinning up a Slack channel with to make our communication easier rather than the frequent emails we share (though I know you’re more of an IRC guy, IIRC :). 

      That said, trying to program, discuss business, fix financial reports and invoices and read Facebook at the same time is hardly productive, but there are things that could be combined in a way that isn’t truly distracting.

      Agreed.

  3. I feel pretty lucky in that I’m actually not really into apps or social media. I know that they’re tools I need in order to grow my business and they offer mild amusement but I’m not big on them. My vice is actually video games. I used to keep a game open in the background while I worked and then take a 10-15 minute break to play. This of course would turn into 2 hours later sometimes.

    Email is really hard for me too though. I want to check it when it’s there but it really detracts me from work. This is why I have a hard time emailing others. Like you Tom. I’ve wanted to email you a dozen or so times with things. I look at it like this though. If I am going to ask you a question or take up your time I need to pay for it or it needs to be in a venue where that’s part or whole of the reason you’re there. For instance your recent trip to WordCamp Atlanta.

    The catch all solution doesn’t exist either. I like that you don’t try to put that out there. I know some do and some of their methods are great but that doesn’t mean everyone operates that way.

    • My vice is actually video games. I used to keep a game open in the background while I worked and then take a 10-15 minute break to play. This of course would turn into 2 hours later sometimes.

      This used to be a thing for me, but I ended up having to sell my game systems. I simply got too obsessed.

      Between work and family, I needed to have my priorities in order. This is not me saying that others should do the same — we’re all different — but it’s what was right for me.

      Email is really hard for me too though. I want to check it when it’s there but it really detracts me from work. This is why I have a hard time emailing others.

      Email has been one of those things that I practically run my life out of. Everything comes into email and it sorted or responded in some way.

      I’m a big GTD person so I try to apply that stuff as frequently and as much as possible when working with this stuff. 

      If I am going to ask you a question or take up your time I need to pay for it or it needs to be in a venue where that’s part or whole of the reason you’re there. For instance your recent trip to WordCamp Atlanta.

      It never hurts to ask, though. Worst thing that can happen is I’ll respond and say I don’t have the bandwidth to respond to the email :). 

      • I really need to become a GTD person a lot more. My biggest struggle is that I run out of steam and get overwhelmed by stuff. I don’t even mean big things, just little things that really don’t even matter. I just feel like they add up.

        As for asking you questions, if I think it’s important enough I will :) That’s why I love your blog though because it answers most of them anyway.

        • I really need to become a GTD person a lot more. My biggest struggle is that I run out of steam and get overwhelmed by stuff. I don’t even mean big things, just little things that really don’t even matter. I just feel like they add up.

          Read anything David Allen has written about “Getting Things Done” or GTD (or just the Wikipedia entry on it). Get an app (I like Things) for both your desktop and your phone, and work from there.

          It’s the best way I’ve found to stay on top of stuff.

          Then again, these are widely dependent on the nature of your personality. This is just what happens to work for me.

          • Same with me! One thing that I have found about the GTD approach, is that you can make tweaks here and there to fit your own style and rhythm. You don’t need a specific app or system. You just follow the basic approach of GTD and you’re all set. :)

          • I don’t use a Mac so I can’t use Things (from what I can see). I’ve tried apps before but I’ve just never found one that works for me.

            I’ll check out David Allen though. I would love to learn more about being more productive than I am. Thanks Tom :)

  4. “I fell your pain, bro!”

    I’m really rigorous with the time I spend on the computer, but from time to time I feel like I’m drifting away from the path of productive. I mostly do what you do: block all social networks and so on, and now I’m using an app called RescueTime, it’s a nice way to review the day, I’ve improved a lot since installed, as now I’ve a detailed view of how I spend the day.

    Thanks for writing this, I was beginning to drift again! :)

  5. The best thing for my productivity was to turn off auto-sync on my phone/tablet when I’m at my computer and course everything through email. I am of the firm belief that the incoming notification sound elicits a Pavlovian response. :)

    I’m more of a time chunker, breaking down my daily activities for specific times which helps with focus. Though I do incorporate time for procrastination…er…research.

    • The best thing for my productivity was to turn off auto-sync on my phone/tablet when I’m at my computer and course everything through email. 

      Yep – keeping certain apps and other distractions closed are key in making sure that we’re able to get into the zone in order to do whatever it is we need to do.

      I am of the firm belief that the incoming notification sound elicits a Pavlovian response. :)

      Hahah, you’re on to something.

      I’m more of a time chunker, breaking down my daily activities for specific times which helps with focus. Though I do incorporate time for procrastination…er…research.

      ;)

      Yeah, I think this is kind of like the Pomodoro Technique.

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