The Evils of Multitasking

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28th Oct 2014

Talking to field-based staff of NGOs leaves me dizzy with the number and variety of activities that they are expected to do in their daily work. The sheer volume of targets and deadlines is a huge source of stress and pressure for people. Management courses spend a lot of time teaching ways to manage this, and there are some useful tools out there which really do help. The top three are probably:

1. Saying ‘no’

2. Letting go of things out of your circle of control

3. Using the Urgent/Important matrix to decide what to prioritize









However, I wonder if this goes far enough? These tools help with which tasks to do first but not with managing how many to do at a time. Looking into this recently, I came across some striking claims about multitasking: every time you switch from one task to another you lose time to readjust to the context of what you are working on. So the more tasks you work on at the same time the longer it takes to finish, and the more time you are wasting.


The research on this isn’t new: in this article from 2001 the authors explain how there are two different things going on in the brain. One is switching from getting one things done to another, and the other is the switching to different thought processes for each kind of task (they call these ‘goal switching’ and ‘rule activation’).

If you’re not convinced, try this experiment on yourself: make three columns on a sheet of paper write A, 1, and I (roman 1) at the top of each column. Now go across the columns filling them in from A to J, 1-10 and I to X. Time yourself. Now do it again going down the columns and time yourself. See any difference? Most people do it in half the time!

So how to reduce multitasking? Is it really feasible in the kind of work we do? In an entertaining and convincing video, Sandi Mamoli takes lessons from the ‘Agile’ movement of software designers to show us how. If you’ve got 30 minutes when you’re not doing other things, have a look!


Check out these links for more:

On Flow and Cadence

On Multitasking and Mindfulness




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