Multitasking is killing me (and probably you too)

Multitasking has been stressing me, robbing me of my focus, my productivity, and my appreciation of the beauty of the exact moment I’m experiencing right now, and dammit, I want my brain back!

Once upon a time, I was assigned 21 projects in my first month on a job. Distinct projects, working with different groups of people on completely different tasks. I went from writing code 95% of the time to running from meeting to meeting.

At the same time, I installed IM at work and didn’t create a separate work account (I can see this clearly now, but at the time, I was just filling out my HR profile, I didn’t see the significance). The lines became blurry and I started to get pings around the clock from both work and friends. This is in part due to “crazy-round-world-syndrome”. My life is international, that’s okay, but it does make boundaries harder.

Perhaps it really began as early as 2000, when I got my first cell phone and lived with it glued to my ear? Getting an iphone in January of 2007 certainly made it worse because as a device my precious is meant to be petted, not simply used to accomplish other tasks more efficiently.

So what does a good geek do? Gather data.

I gathered data from scientific american, psychology today, read research papers, took a mindfullness course, and read links that friends posted to twitter.

And what did I find? In fact, multitasking is killing me. All these constant chats, SMS, growl notifications, and email are releasing dopamine in my brain. The kind of trigger my ancestors might have gotten from a lion jumping out of the bushes. The rush to immediate action. It causes me to value new information above old information because, like a drug, new information (no matter how trivial) gives me a shot of dopamine. My fix of choice is a cocktail of tweetie, iphone, and IM. I know that because after reading about My Brain On Computers, I installed RescueTime to see what I was up to. The results seriously scared me. I was spending far too much time IMing. Even if some of the discussions were technical and useful, the volume was just not acceptable.

Simply knowing this has lead to change. I realized that working from home too much means I am starved for interaction with other developers. I try to get that on IM, but constant distraction is inherent to the medium. Instead, I’m working from client offices, joining a co-working group, and inviting people to get together to work on projects face-to-face. It is much more satisfying than IM, and doesn’t come with the chipmunk on crack scatter-brain side effects.

Mindfullness Meditation

A month ago, I started doing some mindfulness meditation. It is all about noticing how things are right now. The only effort you extend is a certain curiosity about how things will unfold. The rest happens naturally in proportion to your willingness to see things as they really are.

At first, Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla cupcakes started tasting oh-so-good. Then I started noticing how much time I spend swapping between tasks. That my frustration tolerance is very low. In other words, if I get stuck, rather than trying to work out a solution, I simply switch to an easier task (like email or twitter). I was spending so much time task-swapping I wasn’t even noticing what was happening right now! I resolved to walk my dog without checking my iphone. It was wonderful.

As a programmer, I love that amazing feeling of being in-the-zone. When the work seems to flow out of me and time doesn’t even really exist anymore. I had that feeling less and less (or maybe I was just more aware of it because of all the mindfulness meditation?), and I wanted it back. I went through all my old email since OOCSS started taking off. My god, it was a lot of email. Three or four messages per day filled with interesting five-part questions of a deeply technical nature (like cross-browser sub pixel rounding errors).

So I started to say no to projects and speaking engagements, to try to make my life more sane and manageable.

Feeling less productive

Test your focus (flash) based on a Stanford Study

Test your focus based on a Stanford Study

Then, the guilt set in. I *should* be doing more, I shouldn’t say no to an awesome project or speaking engagement. I should clone myself so that I could keep up with my email. I am the middle child in my family. My sister is a type-A go getter. She always has a million things going on. She has to-do lists and lists of her to-do lists. I’ve always felt like that was the “right” way to be. So again, I did some research. Multitaskers:

  • Did a significantly worse job filtering out the irrelevant information.
  • Took longer than non-multitaskers to switch among tasks.
  • Less efficient at juggling problems.
  • Tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.
  • Process visual and auditory input less efficiently.
  • Become reliant on more a more simplistic, and often inferior, thought process, and can thus fall prey to perceptual decoys.

Huh, so maybe this multitasking thing gives the illusion of productivity without achieving higher volume, let alone my real goal of time spent deliciously focused on the task at hand.

So what makes people lose focus?

Decision-making. Apparently, time spent making decisions tires your brain. Much like the muscles of a runner, you can only go so far before you become too tired to run any more. Apparently, even tiny decisions (do I delete or archive this email) can seriously impact your ability to make good choices. See the last bullet point above.

Perhaps there is a parallel between this and choosing 1000 times a day not to respond to growl notifications bouncing in your periphery. Each time you exert will-power, you make it harder to have the mental energy to effectively make analyze your options. I’m taking this to mean that I should shut down Tweetie, Adium, and Mail for several hours each day, rather than trying to resist each time a new message comes in. To avoid “ego depletion” so that I will have enough left to use on something that truly exercises my concentration muscles and teaches me to tolerate frustration, like coding.

How can you get focus back?

These papers suggest three things; a good nights sleep, positive emotions, and slowly building up stamina. In addition, another link I got from Zeldman talks about the importance of being curious and gentle with yourself. Saying, “hmm, I wonder if I’ll manage to focus today?” is apparently much more effective and productive than admonishing yourself with a lot of “musts”, “shoulds”, and other guilt-producing tools of grinding willpower. So, I’m curious to see if I can find ways to reduce the number and frequency of tiny decisions and displays of self control which happen throughout my day. I wonder if I can make it to meditation today? It will be interesting to see if I can limit communication time to specified periods.

Is it working yet? Is it? Well, I’ve been doing this stuff for a few weeks, and I do seem to be writing a lot more blog articles. As always, I’m a work in progress.


All of my references are listed on Delicious. Check them out. There is some really good stuff in these articles. I definitely recommend going directly to the research papers.

24 thoughts on “Multitasking is killing me (and probably you too)”

  1. Step 1, get rid of your phone. I am always amazed that people willingly carry an interruption device in their pocket that lets anybody, anywhere, and at any time interrupt them.

    Step 2, disable all PUSH notifications like Growl popups, Email, Twitter, IM sounds and bouncing icons. You can still be very active on all of these, but do it on a PULL basis so when your mind naturally wanders you can switch to your IM, Twiiter, Email clients and check them.

    Step 3, if you need developer interaction from home, IRC is a much better alternative than IM since it is inherently group-oriented and not 1-1 so you don’t feel compelled to answer in a timely manner. You just switch over to your irc window during natural breaks, or when you get stuck on something, to see what people are talking about.

    1. @Rasmus – IRC is a great idea. I just stopped Growl. I’ll have to disable the others as they come up. I don’t even know how many bouncing jumping sound-makers I have running right now. As for the phone, I’m trying to renegotiate my relationship with it. So far so good, but it does take effort.

      @Jos – Amen. A friend, Carlos, suggested that at any one time, a person can handle one major project and one minor project. Not more. Anything else should be serialized. What do you think?

  2. Multitasking is a myth. Humans just can’t do it. No one can do math with one hand and write a poem with the other. There can be only one thing which requires some degree of attention.

    Also, switching between different tasks comes with a hefty price attached. Context switches can easily take up to 3 minutes or even longer. You have to trace your previous steps back in order to figure out where exactly you left off. You have to figure out what you were trying to do, reassemble the list of steps in your head, and then check which of those you’ve already completed. Needless to say that this is a very error-prone process.

  3. Totally agree with your point about working from home. I did it for years and found my productivity slipping to zero toward the end of that time, which was coincidentally the period of time when things like Twitter and FB were just starting out. These days when I find myself “trawling” for distraction in these places, I call a friend and get out of the office – it’s a much more rewarding use of an afternoon :)

  4. Good post!

    @Rasmus IRC works great both at the office and when working remote. I’ve got only good experience with IRC in work situations.

    I’ve found that the process of working remote is not all about your self. Many company’s, allowing remote work, colleges does not give the person working remote the feeling of confidence that it’s OK to work remote. It’s very easy to get the feeling that you should be visible active to show the rest at the office that you are working even if you are remote. This ending in meaningless IM interactions and less productivity.

    InfoQ has a good article on the consequences of multitasking in projects:

    1. @Rasmus – Your comment got the Lady Gaga song “Telephone” stuck in my head all night:

      Boy, the way you blowin’ up my phone
      won’t make me leave no faster.
      Put my coat on faster,
      leave my girls no faster.
      I shoulda left my phone at home,
      ’cause this is a disaster!
      Callin’ like a collector –
      sorry, I cannot answer!

      It was stuck in my head throughout my meditation tonight. :P

  5. >A friend, Carlos, suggested that at any one time, a person can handle one major project
    >and one minor project. Not more. Anything else should be serialized.

    Having one or two side (or pet) projects is great, if you can do them at your own pace, that is. E.g. if the primary project gives you some idle time here and there, because you have to wait for feedback, tests, or for other people’s code, then it’s perfectly fine to do something useful in the meantime.

    Of course there is still some loss if a push notification kicks you back to the primary project. But since you just filled some gap, it’s of course still a net win. Additionally, it’s not that annoying since you waited for this interruption to happen. Since you’re doing this at your own pace you also got the time to take some notes, which will make it easier to jump back at some later point.

    As long as there is only one thing which demands your immediate attention, everything will be amazingly stress free and you’ll get as much done as possible.

    (By the way, I don’t own a cell phone and I also don’t want one.)

  6. Lately, I’ve been leaving my phone on silent quite a bit and leaving it behind for many occasions. I never take it when I walk the dog, I don’t take it when I want a nice dinner with friends, I leave it behind so I can focus on what I’m doing and who I am with at the time.

    At work, I am very likely to turn things off for hours at a time to get something done – no email, no chat, no twitter – it’s all still there if I want to take a break and catch up.

    Lastly – I am deliberately off my computer on the weekends – that’s my time to think about other things, read deeply, enjoy my friends, family in the flesh, and generally refresh myself.

    I am grateful to technology as I am able to keep in contact with people who are far away, but a lot of that contact is starting to feel shallow, the snippets don’t tell me much of anything and I would rather talk/laugh/discuss life in person or on the phone with no distractions.

    1. @Susan Robertson – I set my phone’s silent mode to be truly silent, no vibrate — nothing. It has been wonderful even if it means a few missed calls, it is worth it for the attention I can give to what I’m actually doing. Your other suggestions are great, especially the week-end offline. I need to get back to that.

  7. Nicole, you are right, multitasking can be a really pain sometimes. When I encounter this problem I usually do the opposite: take 2-3 hours brake, have some fresh air and get back to work, batteries recharged. This works for me. :)

  8. Hello Nicole, maybe to comment on this post, one should really get your rhythm.

    However, reading this post sparked to me much enthusiasm.
    I work on many projects at the same time, and sometimes they are totally different.
    practice that involves using several factors, certainly the first of all, however, is discipline. Let me explain why. If you examine multitasking you see several packages, or “flows”, which have a process. They begin, then they go to the changes and someone ends them.
    My main rule is a “flow” at time, from beginning to end.
    This requires that you “move” a lot of people, because sometimes that process not only depends on you. We must however eliminate the useless time added.
    nothing and no one push me away from the ‘process’ , so my concentration is 100% on it. But if I run my concentration on three projects simultaneously, my attention is 33% on each of them. Ok there are several objections to this, but it’s an art, not a science. Keep reading Grow, and IM, BUT create a “process” for them, start, and stop. So they are under your control.
    What do you think?


  9. Nicole,

    You are so right about this, I now leave my iPhone in my bag when I want to spend quality time with friends. I think the reflex of checking your email or Twitter is killing all the “free time looking up at the roof waiting for something” which is definitely very important. I think those little moments of nothing that we are so systematically killing are just like negative space in photography and art: very important.

    By the way, I saw the video of your last conference and I am so impressed. I remember you teaching me the box model a few years ago and I am glad i had such a famous teacher ;) congratulations!


    1. @Thomas – I’m so glad you said it that way. I create whitespace in my apartment, easily throwing away things that create more clutter than value. Not multitasking is about creating whitespace in my time. On the other hand, I struggle with taking out my iphone even when I intended to leave it in my bag. The articles I read said the pings of push notifications released dopamine in the brain. It becomes addictive responding to these mini-emergencies (the brain equivalent of a tiger jumping out at our ancestors). When I can stop multitasking long enough to meditate, it seems to help with that.

      And thank you, but I was the lucky one to get to work with such brilliant developers at FullSIX.

  10. Nicole,

    I strongly agree with Corey Sunwold’s recommendation of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book “Flow.” It all about being “in the zone.”

    Interestingly, basketball legend Michael Jordan said he reached a point that he could slip in & out of “flow” as easily as slipping into or out of a jacket.

  11. Thanks for the post. After 12+ years of office life I will soon be working on my own and out of my home. Thanks for the tips to keeping from going bonkers. Very helpful.

    Also – great interview on CSS for The Big Web Show. I loved it!

  12. In the middle of my own site redesign, working on I don’t know how many projects (that’s scary in itself that I don’t know how many) trying to do all the small business juggling, marketing accounts, etc.

    I really enjoyed the post it made me feel connected again.

    Thanks for the reminder about mindfulness – I took a class about 18 months ago and have gradually let the practice drop, for all the usual reasons, same as exercise. I made myself a promise to go back to it even if it’s just 10 mins a day. Thanks once again. Glad I found you on Mashable.


  13. From watching my partners during the last 4 years I’ve come to the conclusion that all men are not created equal in this respect. One of them is a great multitasker (at least it seems so), the other not so much. Me? I suck at it.

    I studied printmaking in art school. This basically means working on just a few pieces of wood or metal for weeks, starting at the same drawing while working patiently. (Printmaking is a 500 year old tradition that hasn’t changed much… and the rhythm is almost monastic). From that I then moved to making websites. Holy crap!

    I do miss being able to just do one thing at a time and slowly. I’m still slow, but not as slow as I was before. I have to take phone calls, write emails, and work on 3 or 4 things at a time (though I’m not sure it’s a good idea).

    As a very practical solution I propose you look at The Pomodoro Technique ( I sometimes forget to really practice it, instead of preaching it, but when I do, I remember how fantastic it is.

    The Pomodoro Technique is made for the modern “multitasking” lifestyle. The paradox is that the core of the technique is to NOT multitask for short periods of time. So when you set to do one thing, you shut yourself from anything else, focus on only that one thing, then rest. You can “multitask”, but ONE task at a time.

  14. I’m suddeny very aware that I’ve been distracted by this interesting and inspiring blog post. Thanks for sharing. Yhe question now is do I continue with this distraction by reading the research papers you have recommended.

  15. This was a timely reminder. Thanks Nicole. It’s so easy to lose sight of what matters most by piling up the plate with unimportant tasks.

  16. This was a good post. I really suck at multitasking and I hate it. I work from home and every time I’m working I make sure that all sort of distractions are turn off in that way I can focus to the tasks at hand.

  17. A couple of studies showed that its impossible to multitask what we really do is switching task rapidly back and forth which creates the illusion that we can multitask. Keeping this up over a long period of time, and you have deeply engrained habits that cause stress and anxiety and dropped responsibilities and a myriad of productivity & focus problems. It’s little wonder so many people complain of increasingly short attention spans!

    To learn more about the effects of multitasking, take my free exercise at

Comments are closed.