On Multitasking

Multitasking is crap. It is better to concentrate fully on one task at one time. By doing so, fewer mistakes are made and a little pride can be taken in a single job well done instead of pride being misplaced in creating an air of manic busyness.

Multitasking is actually a computing term denoting the ability for one server computer to look after multiple other terminals at the same time. But we’re not computers: we’re human beings and our work aught to be more organic, more considered and less complex.

Lets slow down an address one task at a time. This is a far more simple approach to work than multitasking. We’re even encouraged to multitask in our leisure lives. People on TV, when in relaxation mode, usually listen to music and read books at the same time. Captain Picard likes to listen to opera and read Shakespeare simultaneously. Frasier and Niles drink coffee as they go. Superman dashes all over Metropolis with four rescue missions on his mind at the exact same time, while also hobnobbing at a Daily Planet cocktail party. Maybe the Man of Steel can afford to multitask but your work probably doesn’t involve saving the planet from criminal geniuses and you don’t have alien superpowers working in your favour.

A pertinent symbol of multitasking is a takeout coffee cup with a plastic lid. They are designed so that you can drink your latte while dashing from one meeting to another, or so that you can knock back your Americano as you tap away at the monthly progress report. Would it not be better to slow down? Take half an hour (Hell, take an hour) to go to a coffee shop and enjoy your beverage properly and in a real cup. You’ll feel better for it. Write your report later and give it your full attention. Multitasking requires more energy than tackling one job at a time. With multitasking, you have to plan; you have to think ahead; you’re flying by the seat of your pants. It is complicated. I doubt it’s healthy either since you’re forced to cut back on those little sub-activities that make you human: daydreaming for instance or eating properly.

What happens when you plug four separate devices (an iPod; an internet connection; a Dictaphone and a digital camera) into a computer? It slows down. It crashes. It burns out.

Take one thing at a time.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

6 Responses to “On Multitasking”

  1. Yay for the coffee example. Here in Colombia, the relatively decent coffee chain Juan Valdez disqualifies their stores by offering paper cups ONLY and speaking about “gourmet coffee” at the same time. Big time fail.

  2. Rob says:


    When American-style coffee chains first came to the UK (or at least to my town), the rationale for paying £1.80 for poor-tasting coffee was to get access to the comfortable hang-out: our teenage asses would warm Starbucks’ sofa for hours and nobody would throw us out. It was never about the coffee, so I couldn’t understand why anyone would take the ghastly muck away in a paper cup.

    (I’m now remembering that our Starbucks was in an out-of-town shopping mall, nowhere near anyone’s office. Makes the takeaway logic even more pointless. Weird).

  3. That makes me ask if the other cafés around your area were so unfriendly to throw you out only for not buying enough? I have never experienced anything like that in German cafés. In Austrian coffee houses, people even may take offense if offered another beverage only a few hours after having one. You could spend days there without any waiter taking notice.
    (Things are different in bars, though. In Cologne, you have to tap your glass with a beer mat to avoid getting a new one every 10-15 minutes or so, without being asked. A fact I thoroughly enjoy everytime – until the bill arrives…)

  4. Rob says:

    Yeah, cafes in Britain don’t like it if you sit for too long without re-ordering. Especially if you’re a teenager. I think that’s a key difference between Britain and the continent: people are so much more chilled-out on the continent. To this day, I get embarrassed if friends want to hang out in a cafe without ordering much: I think it’s my British programming!

  5. Macs says:

    I despise ‘multi-tasking’ with a passion. It’s largely my boss’s fault (one of the reasons I’m digging my escape tunnel…)

    When everyone is running around the office like headless chickens, answering phones when trying to fill out paperwork or do other stuff, and it all has to come together in a last-minute confused flurry of flusteredness, he seems to think that that is a sign of his successful management. Not me – I see all that as a failure of management. ‘Busyness’ is not success…

    Your comments about doing one thing well struck a chord with me and reminded me of an old conversation. Firstly recall the rather stereotypical view that “women are multi-taskers” (we can examine all the cultural baggage around that another time 😉 )

    Well, on that subject, a female friend of mine once made the dig: “You’re a bloke – what’s it like to only be able to do one thing at a time?” My response: “Seems natural – what’s it like to never be able to give your full attention to anything?”

  6. Rob says:

    Hi Macs. Yup, “do one thing well” is the way to go, wherever possible. I guess there are times you have to multitask but doing so divides your attention so that you can’t enjoy or perfect a given task. There are loads of studies now to suggest this.

    No doubt multitasking is fun because you get the positive ‘hit’ associated with ‘busyness’ but the end result will probably suffer. One thing at a time = craftsmanship and mindfulness.

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