Lots of people are starting to question the degree to which people can, or should, multitask. For example, Scott Berkun’s recent Ignite Seattle talk was a version of an essay on the price we pay for our increasingly multitasked lifestyle. In that essay he writes:
It’s true that the hunt and intensity of multitasking can be fun — there are thrills in chasing things, physical or virtual, but most evidence shows we perform worse at all things multitasked. Despite how it feels, it appears our minds don’t work best when split this way.
Agreed. I’m lucky enough to be able to block out a lot of distractions and interruptions, and to spend an unusually large fraction of my working life in a state of flow. To the extent that I’m able to get a decent amount of quality work done, I tend to cite long periods of focused concentration as the reason why.
Even so, I’m in the habit of periodically questioning all my habits, including that one. So here’s a contrary view to consider. When I interviewed Mary Czerwinski on the subject of multitasking, interruptions, and context reacquistion, she made a fascinating observation about her teenage daughter, and tied it to some research findings. The observation was that her daughter has learned to operate in group mode, and that the groups she belongs to optimize themselves by moving tasks around to the members with the right knowledge, skill, and inclination for each task. The research finding was that although the resulting multiasking effect is suboptimal for the individuals and clearly damages their productivity, it can be the optimal way for the group to achieve its goal.
Since we don’t really have a choice about whether to multitask or not, the real issue becomes: What’s the right way to do it? The answer may be very different depending on whether you’re optimizing for individual or group productivity.