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.