I hear occasionally writers saying that they get a lot of writing done because they’re good at multitasking. And I have to say I doubt it.
Of course we may be talking about different things, but the way I define multitasking, it’s a great way to NOT get much writing done.
Let’s remember where the term comes from. It’s a technical term from the world of computers. In the bad old days, computers had one CPU — the central processing unit that does things. If you wanted it to do several things at once, you couldn’t do that, but you could fake it as follows:
Each program that’s running was only allowed to work on a task for a short time — say 20 milliseconds. Then it would give up control of the CPU and another program would take control. That one would run for a short time, and then it would give up control.
That works fairly well with computers, so long as all the programs play well together. If any of them decides to hog the whole system, then all the other programs are out of luck.
It didn’t take long for computer manufacturers to realize that if multitasking was going to work well, it had to be brainlessly easy to program. The operating system (Mac OS or Windows or Linux) had to enforce the rules and break in on each program and keep it from hogging.
That works pretty well for computers. But what about for our brains?
Our brains have a bit of an advantage over computers. The simplest computers only have one CPU. We humans have multiple brains that handle low-level bodily functions like breathing (you don’t have to think about this) and higher-level physical actions like walking and chewing gum and high-level conscious activities like doing our taxes and writing fiction (which are considered by some people to be the same thing).
So we’re naturally designed to multitask at a bunch of things, within limits. You really can do a bunch of things simultaneously, so long as they don’t take conscious thought.
When you start trying to do things consciously, though, you run into problems. Go ahead and try to write two emails at exactly the same time. Can you do it?
Yes, you can. You can open two email windows at the same time on your screen. Then you can type one character in the first window, grab the mouse, move it to the other window, type one character, grab the mouse, move it to the other window, type one character, and so on.
That’s multitasking on conscious tasks, and it’s horrendously inefficient. Most of your time is wasted in switching from one context to another. Context switches kill you.
Even if you’re trying to do something a lot more normal, such as watch TV and do your calculus homework at the same time, the context switches kill you. Both tasks suffer, even if you think you’re doing great at both of them. If you think that, you’re fooling yourself.
Now look at what most people mean when they say, “I’m a great multitasker. I can watch the kids and talk on the phone and cook supper and keep an ear on the washing machine all at the same time.”
Yes, of course, most people can do all those things at the same time, but that isn’t multitasking because only the talking on the phone really requires conscious thought.
I sometimes hear people say, “I’m good at multitasking. I can do email and handle the phone and work on a spreadsheet and have an instant messaging session going and be texting my friend, all at once.”
With all respect, the only reason anyone can do all those things at the same time is because most of them allow for short context switches of a few seconds. You can do a line of an instant message or a text in a few seconds. You can work on an email for a minute or two, then interrupt it and come back twenty minutes later. If you’re on the phone, you CAN in principle zone out and resort to saying “Uh-huh” repeatedly while you do something else, but that’s beginning to cheat. If you’re trying to do two phone conversations at once, you’ll see this right away, and so will the people you’re talking to. And if you’re working on a spreadsheet, you can in principle keep cutting away to do other things, but it’s going to take time to get back into the swing of things every time you return.
Things like doing a spreadsheet or writing a novel take periods of concentrated thought. After each interruption, when you can resume work on them right away, but it typically takes up to 20 minutes to really get into the flow and work at your highest productivity level. If you keep cutting away every five minutes to attend to something else, you CAN get some work done on that pesky spreadsheet or novel, but you won’t be working at nearly the level you could be working if that was the only thing you were doing. And if you try to be like a computer and work on it in 20 millisecond snatches, then you are completely and hopelessly dog meat.
There’s a big difference between what you CAN do and what you can do WELL. And tragically, we humans can only work well on one task requiring focused concentration at a time.
All of which reminds me that my latest humor column has been out for about a week now. The title of it is “Multitaxing” and in it, my plumber Sam and I argue the merits of multitasking. Want to guess who wins the battle of multitasking. You can read it all here.