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Summary:

Conventional wisdom from old-style journalists and not a few bloggers says that multitasking is bad. We need to firewall our attention, prevent interruptions, and work on one thing at a time. But what if this conventional wisdom doesn’t always apply in the new world of work […]

Conventional wisdom from old-style journalists and not a few bloggers says that multitasking is bad. We need to firewall our attention, prevent interruptions, and work on one thing at a time. But what if this conventional wisdom doesn’t always apply in the new world of work that the web is bringing into being? What if an alternate mode of productivity — connected mode productivity using rapid switching between multiple tasks and maintaining near constant connection with teammates — gives better results for many information manipulation tasks?

Today we see yet another journalist warning against the perils of multitasking:

Single-taskers like me refuse to believe that our lives would be any better because we did it all simultaneously. In fact, we think something very important gets lost when we attempt to build our lifestyles too frenetically. We suspect it’s called “living.”

At the end of my life, I hope I’m able to say that I took the time to be where I was. Along the way, I may not build a very sexy resume, and my multitasking friends will continue to run circles around me, but I hope to remain downright fascinated by the ride.

Let’s get one thing straight: each of us only does one thing at a time, but some of us are better at interleaving multiple tasks and projects through the course of a day. The so-called multitasking she’s talking about is just a more rapid switching between tasks and more responsiveness to interruptions, not really doing multiple things at once. Human beings aren’t like dual-core laptops, capable of running tasks in parallel. We choose one task at a time. Some of us just switch back and forth more often than others.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it could represent a new mode of achieving productivity in our increasingly connected age. I call it connected productivity because it relies on connection to many human and computational resources to make progress.

Mashups and multitasking

Many tasks do require unbroken focus: for example, difficult software engineering projects, painting a still life of a bowl of fruit, or writing a book. Solo content creation tasks and creation of relatively independent pieces of a large information project may require firewalled attention and prevention of interruptions.

In the connected world, however, there’s a new way of creating information goods: by composing them of prebuilt pieces rather than building them from scratch. In software, these are known as mashups, but you can see the same approach used in other fields too.

We can be more productive making mashups by staying connected to our social networks, because they can help us find the pieces we need or hook us up with the people who might be able to create what we need, if it doesn’t already exist.

We can teach ourselves to multitask

Even if we spend much of our time on work that would normally require unbroken focus, that doesn’t mean that disconnected mode productivity is unquestionably better. We may be bad at multitasking just because we haven’t taught ourselves any different — or haven’t been immersed in environments in which connected productivity is the norm rather than the exception.

In this podcast with Jon Udell, cognitive psychologist and Microsoft researcher Mary Czerwinski points out that people can learn to multitask better. By practicing over time, you can teach yourself to switch back and forth rapidly between projects, answer instant messages, browse the web, and listen to music — all at the same time. She’s seen how groups of teenagers often trade off individual productivity for higher group productivity.

Tradeoffs are key

Whether you choose firewall-your-attention mode productivity or connected mode productivity, you must make tradeoffs. If you choose to firewall your attention, you’re missing out on the value that ongoing contact with your professional network provides. You’re missing out on the inspiration that can come from keeping your mind broadly open to new inputs. But if you choose connected mode productivity, you won’t be able to create as much original work and you may suffer from a feeling of overload.

Each of us must choose the balance between these two modes of work according to our individual temperaments and our chosen field. Those who emphasize rapid switching between tasks and constant connection to colleagues are not missing out on living or ignoring the present moment, despite what the journalist quoted above might think. Connected mode can be as enriching — or more so — than other ways of working.

By Anne Zelenka

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  1. [...] and is a trait that’s vital as businesses try to get more productive to remain competitive. Multitasking is not bad. It’s amazing. Permalink | The [...]

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  2. I agree it is an issue of context, ie what it is you are doing will drive whether a lock-down unbroken approach is needed, and that we all only do one thing at a time so real issue is efficiency in switching. Regards the link between context and unbroken or multi-task approach, it also is an issue of maturity of the task, ie to use your book writing example, it initially demands the unbroken approach, but after a few drafts when you’re working the red pen all over it, it is usually helpful to have other tasks floating in your space. Helps balance your great work. Those other tasks might just be drinking some wine, whining to twitter friends about a need for that forgotten reference, or simply allowing some children whine outside the door.

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  3. Yes and no. There is a certain amount of state information which must be stored and retrieved whenever you switch tasks. Different people have different capacities for retaining this data for several minutes to a few hours at a time while they are working on a different task. It is this ability that helps determine how much multitasking you can do.

    Having spent many years working in very interruptive environments, I can assure you that freqent interruptions equates to less accomplished at the end of the day.

    For me, the best thing is to turn off the phone and the IM client and the mail client for an hour or two while I work on the highest priority tasks, then catch up with the other tasks before I start on the next level of priority. I have learned that many of your most frequent interrupters can be trained to work within your schedule instead of increasing your stress level by forcing you into their schedules.

    The thing about group productivity is that most of the time, it really isn’t group productivity. It is a bunch of people discussing how they should do this or that, while one or two of the people assigned to the team actually do the work and get it turned in. Once it is turned in, a couple of the most prolific discussers will complain that the workproduct does not conform to what the discussers agreed to do. So you see, your college experience really *is* typical in the workplace.

    If you actually do find a team where everyone contributes and works, I agree fully… connected mode works far better than a bunch of disconnected individuals. But most workplaces are too Theory X command-and-control-oriented to give employees the autonomy and authority necessary to make connected mode work reliably.

    In the one place I have been where this kind of environment was successfully being used, someone higher in the food chain decided that they wanted employees to go back to top-down command-and-control, which killed the group’s combined productivity and work-togetherness.

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  4. @Rick: yes, that’s true, at different points on the same project, a task may need more connection or more focus, partially depending on, as you call it, the maturity of the task.

    @Lnxwalt: I don’t disagree that there are many work situations in which too many interruptions decrease productivity. But as we move towards mashups, interruptions become less problematic and more beneficial. If we are in an assembly mode vs. creation mode, it’s much easier to context switch because we don’t need to hold so much context in our heads. The prebuilt pieces do that.

    It’s similar to using a high-level dynamic language vs. assembler, if you know anything about programming languages. If you come back to machine language after an interruption it’s going to be a lot harder to get back in work mode than if you come back to, say, Python. That’s because Python holds so much more context for you — you don’t have to have it in your head, it’s right there on the screen when you come back to the code.

    I am really intrigued that you bring up the issue of command-and-control in this, because I suspect as well that top-down management approaches won’t support connected mode productivity, at least not very well.

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  5. [...] Web Worker Daily – Connected Mode: Multitasking for Productivity http://webworkerdaily.com/2007/06/24/connected-mode-multitasking-for-productivity/ [...]

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  6. [...] Zelenka makes a very good point with here recent posting on Multitasking for Productivity.  Most of today’s productivity fetishists harp on about isolating one’s self from distractions [...]

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  7. I always love how quickly these “micro” topics begin to hit on “macro” issues. Community. Hierarchy. Productivity. Human temperment. Anne makes some interesting points while maintaining the very important distinction — echoed by Rick and Lnxwalt — that context (the type of work) matters here. I must admit I am not a good multi-tasker, but if I couldn’t turn on my mental firewalls I would definitely explode (and certainly couldn’t work at home anymore, besides!)

    Web 2.0 and social networking and “connected mode productivity” (nice term! :-) ) are all still being born and I look forward to seeing the new things that they bring forth, which will be no different or less wonderful than new kinds of art or literature; however, I suspect that human beings and the issues that go with them will tend to be the usual ones. We’ll just have interesting and useful new ways to see and do everything.

    Thanks, as usual, for the “think,” Anne! (spelling your name correctly this time)

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  8. [...] nugget from Web Worker Daily discussing the merits of multi-tasking versus single-tasking, and apparently [...]

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  9. [...] June 25, 2007 Posted by lilyhill in Uncategorized. trackback Good article on Web Worker Daily about multitasking – good, or [...]

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  10. [...] by Om Malik Monday, June 25, 2007 at 2:39 PM PT | No comments Connected Mode: Multitasking for Productivity: Conventional wisdom from old-style journalists and not a few bloggers says that multitasking is [...]

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