Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

Multitasking: Friend or Foe?


Recently, Harvard Business Review blogger David Silverman wrote a piece in defense of multitasking. Studies have shown that constant computer use, jumping back and forth between email and news sites and Facebook can lower our attention spans, decrease our productivity, and stress us out. But Silverman argues that multitasking is inevitable – as important as air.

What do you think?

I’m guilty of multitasking, but I’ll usually take the task into account. When I’m sorting through paperwork or cleaning out my email box, then I’ll often listen to a podcast or have a movie on in the background to lighten the mood. But when I’m working on something to send to a client, I know it needs my full attention (but I’ll keep my email open in case I get an update that’s relevant to that project).

Do you focus on seeing one task through to completion or do you jump around? Do you batch process? Do you juggle multiple spreadsheets, Word docs, and browser windows or try to keep your monitor as simple and streamlined as possible?

Any opinions for or against multitasking?


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Susan Johnston is a freelance writer/blogger who has contributed to publications including The Boston Globe, Mint.com’s blog, WomenEntrepreneur.com, and Yahoo! HotJobs. Her own blog, UrbanMuseWriter.com, covers tips on productivity, brainstorming, and more for fellow writers.
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Discussion

  1. Florian Rohm on the 9th June

    It’s nearly the same with me.
    When I’m surving the www no one can really follow me. It’s just like: “Oh this tab has loaded” *skim through* “Ok, what do we have here” etc
    For example as I wrote this I just jumped around 5 blogs because something popped up in my mind and I wanted to check it up before I forget what first wanted to do. :)
    When it comes to serious work, a project near the deadline or sth., I usually just have a very calme background musik to concentrate on the work.
    When I have more windows open I just can’t concentrate properly. This may go for simple tasks like surving, but for real work it’s just deadly…

  2. Anelly on the 9th June

    If i have some important thin to do then I focus only on that thing. But if I have many simple tasks to do , I oftne find myself mutitasking. Here is an interesting article about pros and cons of multitasking http://blog.cyclope-series.com/2009/04/pros-and-cons-of-multi-tasking/

  3. The thing that helps me make the most of my time online:

    I don’t get distracted in any other activity. I do take short breaks to fresh up the mind, but I focus on a task and I don’t start any other thing/task until that particular task is finished.

    I also limit my time on any other task (be it online or offline), unless it is very important.

    -Nabeel

    • I want to add: I work online. So for me, it is important to focus on a particular task, otherwise it will take a lot longer to complete that task.

      I have to do several tasks in a day online. And to multi task would be a deterrent to finishing that task. When I am done with my task, only then do I work on other tasks which require my attention.

      I agree, there are too many distraction now. It is easy to get overwhelmed.

      -Nabeel

  4. Steph Auteri on the 10th June

    Oh lord. I wouldn’t call what I do multitasking. It’s more like “succumbing to distractions.” Because I manage several Twitter accounts for work, I’m constantly checking my Google Reader and Twitter feed, even when I’m working on other things (especially when I’m working on other things). Of course it’s inefficient. I’ve experimented with keeping those sites closed for most of the day, and I’m SO much more productive when I’m concentrating on one thing at a time. But I always slide back into bad habits…

  5. Alexandra on the 10th June

    I prefer NOT to multi-task but find myself doing it more and more.

  6. Jesaka Long on the 10th June

    When I’m working on copy for a client, I use a timer, even if I’m billing by the project and not by the hour. I’ve found that it keeps me focused on the task at hand and helps me avoid distractions. I do keep my email open, like you, in case I get an update regarding the project.

    I’ve recently found that when I’m writing for a personal project, I need to turn off everything except my playlist and cell phone ringer so that I can’t distract myself or “complete just one more task” instead of writing.

  7. Jane Boursaw on the 10th June

    I find that it’s harder to multi-task these days than it used to be. I don’t know if my brain’s gotten too crowded or what, but I find myself wanting to be focused on Just One Thing when I’m working, otherwise I feel too scattered.

    That said, my email is always open, and I’m Twittering and Facebooking throughout the day, but it’s all work related.

  8. MarthaandMe on the 10th June

    I tend to work on one thing at a time, but jump around from one to another. So while I am, saying, doing an index, I am thinking only about that, but I take frequent breaks to read email or update my Twitter account.

  9. Frugal Kiwi on the 10th June

    Multi-tasking too often turns into classic Scott Adams “multi-shirking” for me. If something is important and needs to get done on the computer, I do it to the exclusion of other tasks.

  10. Vera Marie Badertscher on the 10th June

    Since I work at home, I multi-task housework and writing. Put in a load of laundry, go check e-mails; do the dusting when I need to get up and stretch, but maybe listen to a podcast while I work.

    But I can’t do two things that involve WORDS at the same time–listening to news and writing a reply to an email, for example.

    As others have said, it is more the distraction factor than the multi=tasking that gets me.

  11. Roxanne Hawn on the 10th June

    It depends on what’s on my desk any given day. If it’s deadline-city, then I close email, close browser, pop on the iPod and work. Just work.

    If it’s a research day or a day with many holes in it already, then I’m MUCH more likely to piddle around and try to do many things at once.

  12. Ruth Pennebaker on the 10th June

    I multitask in my own poky way — checking email and Facebook. But I can’t bear to hear music when I’m trying to think.

  13. Jennifer Margulis on the 10th June

    I KNOW it’s bad for me, for my productivity, and for my brain. I’m doing it right now — reading a bunch of blogs, writing a pitch, signing up for Twitter–and I wish I were just doing one thing at a time… Sigh.

  14. Kristen on the 10th June

    I have to admit I like to multitask, but I had heard about this study. Interesting to read others’ comments. I do think social media encourages a multitasking mindset.

  15. Arnab Bhadra on the 10th June

    multitasking is the only way to survive with work war in todays world !!!!!

    so its the best way to do everything …..

  16. Ben on the 12th June

    I multi-task only when one on my tasks is active-but-mindless and the other task is passive. The most common instance of this is listening to podcasts while putting away laundry.

    Otherwise, I am a single tasker.

    I don’t think this really relates to multi-tasking, but since you asked, yes I do batch tasks. I still knock them out one by one, but it’s much easier to group a set of similar tasks and then blow through them rapid fire.

  17. Donna Hull on the 14th June

    Guilty multi-tasker here. Like other commenters, when I’m working on an important project, it receives my total attention. One downside to multi-tasking is that I find myself needing to fill up every bit of downtime when I’m at my desk. If a web page is slow loading, off I go to multi-task while it’s coming up on the screen. I’m not sure that it’s a healthy habit as I find myself impatient if I don’t have something to fill up empty minutes when I’m away from the computer.

  18. Meredith on the 14th June

    I feel most at peace when I don’t multitask – and honestly, I get more done. But something in the fast-pace of our society makes me forget that, and suddenly I’m off doing 4 things at once. Then I remember to slow down, and all is well.

  19. sarah henry on the 14th June

    i’m fascinated by this subject, so thanks for raising it. multitasking makes me a little crazy — and i feel like i don’t do anything well but it also seems like something one has to conquer in the modern world. that said, i’m often happiest focusing on one task at a time.

  20. Stephanie - Wasabimon on the 17th June

    Oh dear, I’m such a multitasker that it hurts. It really does stress me out, and my attention span is about that of a housefly. I find it nearly impossible to do one thing for a long time, so I’m trying out the Pomodoro Method. Check it out – maybe it’s something you could do a post on. I’ll let you know how it works… if I can ever get through reading the silly PDF manual. Sigh.

  21. Dave Crenshaw on the 12th April

    Interesting thoughts. It’s more likely on prioritizing and how you manage your time properly. If you are an organized individual and making sure that everything is in order like having a calendar and a to-do list to put all your tasks then you are more likely to avoid the need to multitask. As a result your productivity and performance on work does not suffer and stress level goes down.
    visit me at http://davecrenshaw.com/

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