What’s at Stake with Multitasking?
The Lifehacker book notes that:
It takes 15 minutes of uninterrupted time to get into “the zone,” that wonderfully productive place where you lose all sense of time and space and get a job done.
So what happens if you multitask? You will never get into the zone. And if you never get into the zone, you will miss out on the best and most productive experience in work.
The experience of being in the zone is the same thing that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote about in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. “Flow” is the state (citing Lifehacker here) when “you’re fully immersed in your task, effortlessly successful, and oblivious to time and external factors.”
You get way more done — and it is far more enjoyable — when you are in this state of mind called flow. Csikszentmihalyi calls it optimal experience and actually regards it as a central feature of happiness:
The best moments of our lives usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to the limits in a voluntary moment to achieve something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen…
Multitasking prevents you from getting into this state of optimal experience because the state of flow comes when you are fully immersed in something difficult and worthwhile. That is, it comes through involved mental (or physical) tasks. Multitasking keeps you from being immersed and fully involved in your task, and thus is contrary to the state of flow.
We should engineer our work days to enable us to get into the zone as much as possible. This increases your productivity (I would say, at least by a factor of 4 — but that’s just a guess) and your enjoyment. To do this, “block out irrelevant distractions and let in only the information you need to get the job done” (Lifehacker, p. 140). Chapter 5 of Lifehacker gives lots of strategies for this. One of the biggest, which I’ve blogged about previously, is not to check email continuously.
Now, let me say one more thing. There may be an impression out there that those who choose to focus on one thing at a time are somehow “less capable” than those who pride themselves on multitasking. So let me address that.
If we want to get technical, the reason you can’t multitask with highly difficult and complex tasks is because the single tasks themselves involve so many components that you are really doing something like multitasking within that task. Therefore, you have no room for multitasking with outside factors which are beyond the scope of the task.
Let me give an example using my favorite quarterback, Kurt Warner. When he is on the field and drops back to pass, he has to keep a hundred different things in view. He has to know where his receivers are (and should be), where the defenders are, what the defenders may be planning to do, how significant the threat of a sack is, and so forth. The task of completing a pass is so complex that it is, in a sense, a form of multitasking within itself. Keeping all factors in view involves one’s whole attention.
Therefore, there is no room for Warner to check his Blackberry or iPhone when he is out on the field. Further, there is not even room for him to look up in the stands and wave to his wife during the middle of a play. The task requires 100% concentration.
The world of knowledge work is no different. If it is different for you… how do I say this? If it is different for you — that is, if as a rule you never feel the need to get into the zone — you are probably doing something wrong.