Marijuana, or Multi-Tasking?

There is a great coffee mug that reads: “Multi-tasking, the best way to screw up both jobs.” Yet, many of us walk around with our chests out looking for a Foursquare badge for our multitasking promiscuity.

According to Josh Waitzkin, “A study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours – more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana.”

Hat tip to Travis Swicegood; via Social Media Multi-tasking Worse than Marijuana | Socialnomics.

Starbucks Puts Quality Over Quantity

What Starbucks would really like is simply to be able to say "make a latte this way every single time", and have thousands of baristas hop to." But anyone who has ever managed employees knows that this isn’t quite so easy as it sounds. Even with the cleverest and most motivated employees, little changes will creep in over time; when I was a canvass field manager for PIRG, I was always a little astonished to find the varied ways that people had modified the standard "rap" they were supposed to give at each door, often without even realizing that they’d gone off script. This is why Atul Gawande is so gung-ho on making doctors hew to checklists and hard-to-modify standardized procedures.

via Starbucks Puts Quality Over Quantity – Megan McArdle – Business – The Atlantic.

Structured Procrastination

All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

via Structured Procrastination.

No Such Thing As Multitasking (Redux)

In most jobs, one needs to be able to switch quickly between tasks, but this is easier said than done. Thought processes from the first task are hard to shut off – “attention residue,” in the words of the author of a new study – and can interfere with the second task. Not only can attention residue impede performance on the second task, but attempting to make the transition when the first task is unfinished – or when the first task did not have a tight deadline – makes the problem worse. The only transition that didn’t suffer from attention residue was when the person believed that the first task had been finished under deadline pressure. In other words, put yourself and your co-workers under the gun, do one task at a time, and then move on.

via Uncommon knowledge: When friends make you poorer – The Boston Globe.

There Is No Such Thing As “Multi-Tasking”

The last time I wrote about Dirk Karkles, we learned that “do your best” is not a managerial plan of action.

Dirk Karkles thinks he can pay attention to more than one thing at a time. For example, he thinks he can write a report and carry on a phone conversation (or an IM/IRC session) at the same time. “I’m multi-tasking!” he says, sometimes with pride.

To this I say: There is no such thing as multi-tasking, there is only attention-switching.

You cannot perform two or more non-trivial tasks at the same time; at best, you pay attention to one and mostly ignore the other, then you switch your attention to the other and dismiss the first one temporarily, and then you switch your attention back to the first again. This is far less effective than completing the first task, then moving on to the second task, because of the time and mental effort it takes to switch between tasks.

Attention-switching is particularly bad when you are in real-time or near-real-time conversation. If you are doing other things while talking with someone else by voice or IM/IRC, you’re telling the other person they are not worth your full attention. If they’re not worth your attention, why are you worth theirs? (“I’m the boss” and “I’m paying them” and variations thereupon are not valid arguments — try again.) You are wasting your time, and theirs, by not being a full participant in the conversation.

Now, there are times when you must give your attention to multiple tasks. Be aware that you are not multi-tasking, you are attention-switching, and take this into account when you switch your attention to another task. At the very least, you will need to take time to “catch up” on the task before you perform some new action related to it. For example, in an IM/IRC conversation that you are taking active part in, you will need to read and comprehend the backlog of messages before you you can even think about writing a meaningful response. Among other things, this means that attention-switching is not a net time saver, it is a net time spender — but sometimes you have no other option.

So, the next time some tells you “I’m multi-tasking!” you know that person is not paying full attention to anything he’s doing right then. Similarly, if you find yourself attention-switching in live conversation, have the common courtesy to excuse yourself and pick back up again later, when you can give it your full attention. “Multi-tasking” is something to apologize for, not to be proud of.