Is Multi-Tasking Really as Evil as It Seems?

I’ve read plenty of expert opinions that say that multi-tasking can ruin your ability to be productive: if you aren’t giving each task your full attention, nothing will ever truly get done. I’m not so sure I agree.

Ask My Grandmother

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother when I was growing up. She routinely multi-tasked, because there was no other way to get everything on her to-do list done. She watched me and my cousins, handled all the bookkeeping and paperwork for my grandfather’s real estate business, kept house (including keeping a massive garden, canning her own produce and making half my clothes by hand).

My grandmother didn’t do all of this out necessity: she was one of the most successful women I’ve ever met. The day she and my grandfather got married, they had just enough money to split a hamburger after the wedding. But by the time I was born, my grandparents really had achieved the American dream. My grandmother could have easily hired someone to do all the things she had to do. But she’d found that she could manage perfectly well, especially when she multi-tasked.

So she’d drill me on spelling words while reconciling accounts, call real estate brokers while she made grape jelly and still have dinner on the table every night at 6 P.M. I never heard her miss a beat. She kept track of everything that was going on, multi-tasking in a way that many of my books on productivity claim that she shouldn’t have been able to.

Multi-Tasking Within Reason

I can’t keep track of quite as many tasks as my grandmother could, but I don’t think that multi-tasking is the great evil is been made out to be. I routinely have a couple of things going at once: I work from home, which means I handle household chores along with my work for clients. When I get up to stretch, I often put in a load of laundry or start some baking — fresh chocolate chip cookies are the best part of working at home.

I’ve come to the conclusion (and you’re welcome to disagree with me) that the average productivity expert isn’t in the position where multi-tasking is simply a matter of life. Children seem to be a key factor in whether a person really thinks multi-tasking is necessary and, while many experts have kids, they don’t have the sheer necessity to provide constant child care while still managing other projects.

For me, multi-tasking is absolutely a necessity in my daily life. What about you?

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4 Responses to “ Is Multi-Tasking Really as Evil as It Seems? ”

  1. I think that the problem with multi-tasking is more about doing one thing, like writing a post for your blog, and then breaking the process down by checking your facebook profile, answering your phone, remembering something you have to do later. That would mean that the problem is when you’re breaking your focus with something completely different from what you’re doing. If you stop writing a post because you need to check a fact, that’s ok. On the other hand, if you are a good cook, you will always be doing more then one thing at the time (multi-task) which will make you more productive. Same with housework or any group of other activites that are somehow related.

  2. David Kirba says:

    Thursday and Ali, thanks for putting this blog up. Being a totally hopeless multitasker, I’m really looking forward to the tips and advice that will be coming from here in the days to come.

    To try and answer your question Thursday, multitasking isn’t really an absolute necessity in my life. From what I’ve seen I tend to be more relaxed and achieve more if I make a queue of everything that needs to get done and then focus on each task at a time. It could be that I’m just that kind of person. I tend to be able to focus on one task and block out the rest of the world and any intrusion or new task throws me completely off track.

    On the other hand, as Stella says, if multitasking refers to a task related to the task I’m already working on, it doesn’t affect my concentration one bit.

    But then again, if I do learn how to multitask effectively, I will be accomplishing much more each day. It’s just that I can’t right now. :) So it might eventually become an indispensable part of my life.

  3. Dinah says:

    Right, Stella. It’s about the kinds of tasks. When it’s kinds, plural, then multi-tasking can work.

    I don’t think I can effectively write a good comment here and write a good unrelated blog post at the same time, but I could be cooking a good meal with the laptop on the kitchen counter as I wrote the comment OR the post and part of my brain was engaged with music playing on the stereo.

    Seems to boil down to eliminating the task-shifting penalty.

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