Even Simple Multi-tasking Can Make a Project 30% Late

simple multitasking can make projects up to 30% late

The Theory of Constraints blog has an interesting article on the damaging effects of multi-tasking.  In a project setting, it’s easy to get distracted and try and complete multiple tasks instead of just working on one. This article argues that multi-tasking is not only a bad mindset to have, but it can actually make projects up to 30% late, with only one instance of multi-tasking going on.

When multi-tasking happens, your brain has to mentally go back to the beginning and let your mind catch up to the beginning of the last task you did.

Multi-tasking is the act of stopping a task before it is completed and shifting to something else; in software development the term “thrashing” is often used to describe this practice. When a task is stopped and started there is the immediate effect of a loss of efficiency. Each time a person has to re-start a task, time is required to become re-familiarized with the work and get re-set in where he was in the process. It is very much like the physical set-ups done on a machine in production. Each time you tear down a machine to do another task, you have to set it up to run the part again.

Don’t Break Your Attention- Make a Digital Dumper

While working on projects, it’s quite easy to get distracted by little details that may crop up in the development process.  However, if you can fight the urge to work on them and instead put each detail into some sort of bucket, you’ll keep your train of thought on track longer, upping productivity tenfold. I use iGTD (mac only) as my digital “dumper”, but any sort of collection bucket (digital or paper) will suffice.

So let’s review: Instead of doing many things at once (thinly-veiled in the name of Productivity), focus your attention on one task at a time, which in the long run will allow you to do more.

It’s like the tortoise and the hare parable, except for desk monkeys.

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{ 26 comments… add one }
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  • Sally November 27, 2008, 2:27 am

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  • Michele Wade November 12, 2008, 4:10 pm


  • Jim Rait August 8, 2007, 2:29 am

    I know the feeling well.. there is a difference between switching tasks to maximise productivity/creativity of an individual’s brain and multi-tasking where much time is spent in the action of switching. I wrote this (http://snipurl.com/1pbjp) a while ago which maybe of interest.

  • raj August 8, 2007, 12:14 am

    I’ve been a multi-tasker for over 20 years and it always works for me, but only for certain types of work – if it’s all physical, good luck. To succeed with it, you need to plan a bit and to be able “see” the multi-tasking in your head.

    I’m proof against this growing theory that multi-tasking is bad. But the fact is, in any project, you’ll have down time. That’s when you work on something, preferably sufficiently different.

    This is in fact how my father, a now retired math professor, taught me to study in high school and college. I took it and applied it to most of my career, most of my mindset.

    Now if all of your projects/ tasks are the exact same type of work, you are better of single-tasking. This, I believe, is what multi-tasking naysayers seem not to understand.

    It’s also something I’d forgotten when I’d originally taken on too much blogging work earlier this year. But when I dropped some work and learned to balance writing against research against, say, commenting or communicating, I found I could multi-task again.

    So to all multi-tasking naysayers, I say you’re approaching it all wrong.

  • Modern Worker August 7, 2007, 1:04 pm

    One task at a time works best for me, personally =)

  • Harley Pebley August 7, 2007, 11:09 am

    > I use iGTD (mac only) as my digital
    > “dumper”, but any sort of collection
    > bucket (digital or paper) will suffice.

    I’ve found TiddlyWiki (http://www.tiddlywiki.com/) to work really well as a digital collection bucket. Save an HTML file on your desktop and a double-click brings it up in any (Javascript enabled) browser.

  • Jeroen Sangers August 7, 2007, 12:02 am

    The diagram you showed does not show the described effect clearly, as in this case it is clearly a resource allocation problem: in the original planning 100% of the time has been allocated to project A, while later projects B and C have been added.

    The image just above this one on the original article describes the multi-tasking effect much better, showing clearly that projects A and B are delayed because of multitasking.