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.
Carrie Neuman says
I’m still convinced what one previous boss meant by mulitasking was interrupting me constantly. Needless to say, I’ve developed a bit of an aversion to it.
The worst part of it, there is a certain amount of task switching that needs to happen, and I’m still lousy at it. If I’m thinking about project A and I get a call to help with problem B, sometimes I have to stop and talk myself through which program I need to go to to find the information. Then when I finish and go back to project A, I can’t even remember my password for the program.
My boss calls it “sticky clutch” system, and I’m very jealous of people it doesn’t bother.
Lois Hudson says
Sad, but true, I agree. I’ve learned that the time it takes to settle into one task, i.e. one writing project to another one I want to advance, is not worth the brainfreeze that automatically happens, let alone the brazen situation-jumping of characters from one WIP setting to another where they don’t belong.
Sheila Deeth says
I remember multi-tasking as a teenager, except we didn’t call it that: usually accompanied by “Put that book down while I’m talking to you,” or “How can you watch a movie and read a book at the same time.” Now my sons do the same thing, successfully, and I think I’m getting old.
At the same time, I’m sure motherhood was an apprenticeship to a more active kind of multi-tasking. If Mom’s dont’ flit from one task to another, kids scream.
Pauline Youd says
I am not a multitasker when it comes to writing. If I really want to accomplish anything, I get out of the house, get a mocha and park in a parking lot. My time is well spent in making notes on my characters (I write Bible stories for adults)processing their emotions, and working on dialog. Being outdoors fills my need for dopamine, and the mocha clears out the lingering cobwebs. Both lift my spirit and allow me to create a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
No! Writing and drinking a mocha is not considered multitasking. They are one and the same.
Angie Breidenbach says
This was a very timely answer to prayer for me. Even though women are able to multitask “better” than men because we are wired that way, I have been struggling with the interruptions and focus. I’m an achiever. That’s good and bad. That means I will fight to the finish to achieve something. But distractions are everywhere. Lately, I’ve been praying for God to take the lead because with all this multitasking, I’ve lost focus on which project I should be pouring my energy into so that I will achieve the end purpose.
I’m working on the creation of a schedule that will allow me to have sections of time to focus on tasks that must be done. Some daily, some weekly, and some as they require attention. But I think the best thing I can do right now is to minimize my distractions and focus in blocks of time.
Thank you for a very good reminder about the quality of focus time being the most effective. I think that’s where I went off on a tangent lately. I forgot how much time I wasted in switching gears.
Sally Ferguson says
I agree with Sheila; multitasking for moms is a fact of life. Now that my kids are teens, I’m trying to retrain my brain to focus on one thing at a time. I hope it’s not too late…
Lora Price says
I am so glad you have posted Randy. I thought you had fallen into a black hole somewhere. My job requires a lot of concentration and if I am interupted it can take me ten minutes to figure out where I was and what I was doing. On the other hand, I can get so absorbed an interuption can be the brain break I really needed. Now having the TV on while I do homework is the only thing that keeps me in my chair at home. Otherwise there is always something that I need to take care of.