The Multi-tasking Blues

Hello, my name is Sherry, and I’m a multi-tasker.

It’s true–I love multi-tasking. I love having two monitors and a fairly fast computer, because it means I can have so many things on the go at once. Right now, for instance, I’m writing this post in one browser tab. Other open tabs hold Gmail, some affiliate link things I’m working on for The Scriptorium, a couple of articles I want to read later, and a map I used earlier today. (Okay, I can close that one now.)

In addition to the browser, Evernote is open, as is Photoshop, two twitter clients, Skype, and Outlook. I also have a widget for my four favorite RSS feeds.

Sure, I’m only looking at ONE of those things at a time, but it’s somehow comforting to me to know that I can pop over to any one of them at any time. I feel busy and productive and WOW, like I’m really getting a lot done.


Except that I’ve read a few things lately about how multi-tasking is really not that good for us. That it leads to less productivity overall, and shortened attention spans, among other things.

My first reaction to these claims was “pshaw!”. Well, I didn’t actually say “pshaw,” because who really does that these days? But my feelings were the equivalent of “pshaw!”. I mean, that couldn’t be true, could it?

And yet now that I’m thinking about it, I am beginning to wonder. It’s very easy, when one has so many options, to hop back and forth between them, tinkering a bit and then hopping off to something else when the first thing gets difficult. And even when things eventually get done, I’m starting to wonder if they’re suffering from my lack of focus. Are they actually somewhat diluted because I haven’t given them enough of my undivided attention?

I also notice that I skim/skip a lot more magazine articles. The only magazine I read with any diligence is New Scientist, and I used to devour almost every article, cover to cover. Now I tend to skim through, sampling first lines here, reading a paragraph or two there, and then moving on. That can’t be coincidence. Science news hasn’t gotten more boring, certainly.

While I wrote this post, I answered a tweet, looked at a notification, and checked a note in Evernote (that was not related to this task). That’s not too bad, I suppose, but would this post have been even better if I’d had nothing else open on my screens while I wrote it?

I’m seriously considering cutting back on my multi-tasking to see what effect it has, if any, on my concentration and focus. I’ll report back on this entirely unscientific investigation in due course. If I remember, that is!

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  1. I find that when I close all other applications except email and my development window at work (I have to leave email open because if I don’t, people walk over to my desk and ask, “Did you get the email I just sent you?” and then proceed to tell me what it says before I have a chance to read it), I get more work done. If I open anything else, I flit among them like a butterfly with a lot of flowers.

  2. I have always been a multi-tasker, even though I do my best work when fully focused on one thing (to the degree that I don’t hear people when they speak to me). I do think multi-tasking is a bad thing – I do it more when I am anxious, which I think indicates uncertainty and an inability to concentrate while still fooling oneself into believing one is “getting more done”.

    However, I think employers and our current culture pressure us to multi-task, and demand the right to interrupt and redirect at any moment. It’s frustrating and I do feel I do lower quality work because of it. I do long to be good enough at something to be able to work for myself!

  3. Wow, I do that too. Well, I might not have that many windows open, but I usually work with a minimum of four: email, 2 documents in word and another browser window.

    I don’t know about the short attention span development. Perhaps they’re right. I do find myself clicking to check my mail when I pause briefly in my writing, or I’ll check a blog posting or…one of several things, then return to what I was writing. I consider it my moment break. :-)

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