Being productive, or just busy?

Multitasking: We all do it and we all pretty much know how good we are at it.

You may have seen the graphical representations of the difference between multitasking and not doing so.

They go something like this: Lets say you need to complete 3 tasks that will take 3 days each.

If you single task, the first task is done in 3 days, the second one in 6 days and the third in 9 days, so it looks like this:


If you evenly alternate between them, doing a day of work on each one and then moving to the others, it looks something like this:


That means that you don’t complete a task until the end of the 7th day.

Yes, you’re doing (roughly) the same amount of work, but your focus is completely different and MOST of your work is delivered later than it ordinarily would be.

But it gets worse…

If you have 9 tasks to do and they each take 3 days, the illustration changes your view even more:


Task 1 isn’t finished until the nineteenth day, sixteen days later than if you weren’t multitasking.

Working in the Zone

If you do the kind of work that gets you into “the zone” (IT and other technical work is famous for this), give not-so-multitasking a try. This is why folks who do technical jobs are often sequestered away from doing customer support – the unscheduled interruptions can decimate their productivity.

Think about it: If it takes 20 minutes of reading/thought/analysis to get that programming (code/scenario) or differential equation into your head and have you thinking as if your brain were processing the program or equation, then an interruption to do customer support every 15 minutes (only 4 times an hour) will prevent someone from ever getting to that point.

And you wonder why they never reach optimal performance.

Here are some thoughts from Harvard Business Review that dig deeper into why you should stop multitasking and how to do so.

4 replies on “Being productive, or just busy?”

    1. Exactly, John. As someone who spends probably half his time on technical work, I can tell you that context switching time can be sizable and thus painful to productivity. You have to erect barriers to preventing those switches – and sometimes they must be sturdy enough to withstand a little abuse from the outside world:)

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