In Praise of Multi-Tasking

I have a blog.
And I am writing a book.
And I am leading a business.
And I speak at conferences.
And I support an election campaign.
And I am in a relationship.
And I have children.
And I love reading books.

And I consider these my ongoing projects.

Again and again, I read blog posts from people claiming that it is not smart to be working on multiple projects at the same time. Multi-tasking is bad for you, they say. It is better to work on projects one-at-a-time… Or the fewer projects the better, they say.

OK, so first I would have to start and finish writing my blog.
Then I should work on my book, for one thousand hours straight.
And only after my book is finished, I would start my business.
And only after resigning from that business, I could choose:
Either speak at conferences or read 500 books.

Hmm…

Allow me to repeat my favorite mantra:

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong…” – H.L. Mencken

I cannot write more than 6 hours per day, or else I go crazy.
I cannot write a book without getting feedback from readers on my blog.
I cannot support an election campaign without experience as a blogger.
I cannot speak at conferences without reading books.
I cannot write a blog without experience from running a business.
And I cannot happily run a business without a loving partner.

You see?

My many projects support each other. I do my projects well because I have other projects going on at the same time. I don’t care about loss of performance due to some task-switching. I do care about the much greater performance increases due to cross-pollination.

The multi-tasking-is-bad-for-you message is clear, simple, and wrong.

Let’s start acknowledging that life is more complex than that.

(image by helico)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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  • http://www.methodsansmadness.com Jeremy Kriegel

    I think you overgeneralize, and unlike most of your posts, fail to make a point in the exaggeration. Of course we all manage multiple projects between life and work. It’s not that you never switch, but that the more you switch, the more you lose. Switching every hour is more productive than switching every 10 minutes, etc.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Yes, I overgeneralize. Which is exactly what the many blog posts about “don’t multi-task” are doing. I’m simply overgeneralizing in the other direction!
    The point being that the truth about multi-tasking is not as simple as many writers make it seem.
    Which is exactly the point you say is missing. Which I think is not. 🙂

  • http://andypalmer.com Andy Palmer

    Multi-tasking is bad because it involves context switching. Switching contexts between home/work is good.
    Writing one word in a blog post and one word in your book will cause both to take much longer than necessary. Writing one blog post, followed by a few paragraphs of your book, followed by going for a walk is ok.

  • http://sheldonp.spaces.live.com Sheldon Porcina

    One other perspective is that many people are unaware the cost of multi-tasking. People tend to focus on getting done, but no effort on why they are not getting done sooner.
    Understand the cost. If you are willing to pay it, go ahead. If not, make some changes.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/andrezak Markus Andrezak

    What makes the comparison a bit pointless to me is comparing purely ‘intellectual’ activities with low set-up times and such with relatively high set up times like software development.
    Actually the thought of going towards a more one-piece-flow is that of flow and cost. And yes, you can up with examples where flow and cost are not impacted by frequent context switches. If that’s true for product development in large remains questionable to me.

  • http://refreshrate.wordpress.com/ Otto Astorga

    I made this little video on multitasking.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDtIb-iEXL4
    I’m doing various things at once, but I almost lost the meat. 🙂
    I generally find it more difficult to code, do something entirely different and go back to the place I was. Not as efficient but I guess still doable.

  • http://www.pluggedinconsulting.com Rachel Baker

    There is a difference between multi-tasking and multi-projecting. Multi-tasking is:
    -making a phone call to schedule a meeting
    -responding to an email
    -brainstorming blog post ideas
    Instead it is best to:
    -Focus on the phonecall
    THEN
    -Respond to that email (close your email)
    THEN
    -Begin brainstorming blog post ideas.
    I don’t think anyone does just ONE project at a time. I have a job, run an organization, am starting my own company, planning a wedding, while being a friend/partner/daughter. However, I have found that I work more efficiently OVERALL if I only do one TASK at a time.
    My 2 cents
    Rachel Baker
    http://www.pluggedinconsulting.com
    http://www.chicagonerds.com

  • http://blog.brodzinski.com Pawel Brodzinski

    Depends on level really. On the level you describe every single person in the world is multitasking. On the other hand I rarely find this argument moved to the point when they say: if you work on a project don’t start another one or you’ll burn in hell.
    It’s rather on the level of simple a-couple-of-hour long (or shorter) tasks. You can take often cited 15-minute long switch time or you may use anything which works for you (a minute or a few) and if your tasks are small enough you’ll be wasting a lot of time switching context.
    It’s just a function of scale. With epics you mention no sane person would advise you to focus purely on a single project until it is finished.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/theleaderlab TheLeaderLab

    I think you’re viewing multi-tasking wrong. Having multiple projects going at the same time is not multi-tasking, it’s life. Multi-tasking is trying to write, while delivering a webinar and clipping your toenails at the same time.
    The opponents of this type of multi-tasking argue that it’s bad because you can only truly focus on one thing at a time, not three. So you’ll probably clip your toenails too short. However, focusing on one project for 30 minutes to an hour and then switching isn’t the same.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/jurgenappelo Jurgen Appelo

    Thanks for all your comments.
    Of course, I know I am exaggerating. 🙂
    My point is simply that the people _against_ multi-tasking are also exaggerating. There are both costs and benefits to having multiple projects and tasks going on. The trick is to find a good balance.

  • J Maguire

    So very right you are. Perhaps for a college student it is wiser or even perhaps easier to focus on one project at a time, but when living a life it is almost essential to juggle many projects once. It maintains focus by relieves potential boredom, by distributing thought and awareness. If you sit and stare at the same project every single day for hours on end it can become monotonous and exhausting.
    Thank you for this.
    You may really enjoy this interview series of social media experts.
    http://www.ourblook.com/topic/social_media.html

  • http://www.ethanbackman.com Ethan Backman

    I like your thinking. A healthy balance is best.
    I wrote a blog on the topic, what you should know about Generation Y. Worth a look if you feel the urge.
    http://ethanbackman.com/?p=392
    Cheers.
    Ethan

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