The Multitasking Myth (Part One)

I can’t multitask.

Well… neither can you.

Jeff Sutherland, co-founder of Scrum and author of the book Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, agrees with me.

Run this experiment for me.

What you will need:

  • A piece of paper
  • A pen
  • A stopwatch

Experiment:

  1. You will be writing down the following characters
    1. The numbers 1-10
    2. The Roman numerals I-X
    3. The first ten letters of the alphabet
  2. Start your timer and write the characters in order, but as follows
    1. Do Row 1 from left to right: “1, I, A”
    2. Do Row 2 from left to right: “2, II, B”
    3. Repeat the process until you finish the 10th row
  3. Stop your timer and capture how long it took to create the columns
  4. Reset the timer and write the same content, but this time:
    1. Write all of the numbers from top to bottom
    2. Move to column two and write down the Roman numerals
    3. Move to column three and write down the letter
  5. Stop your timer and capture how long it took

In running this experiment, you will likely find that it took half the time to accomplish the second task as it did the first, even the output is exactly the same.

That difference in time provides a glimpse into how much time is wasted by trying to do more than one task at a time. That difference in time spent to complete the same task is a complete waste and can be otherwise called as “context switching.” If you have many projects happening at the same time, just think about all the lost time context switching if not appropriately managed!

Photograph of paper with columns of handwritten text

The mind cannot multitask

Humans cannot do two things at once, but they can switch between tasks quickly, as evidenced in the above experiment.

The prefrontal cortex in the brain cannot focus on two things at once. There will always be a battle over multiple actions, and the action with the greater immediate reward will win.

In every moment during a meeting in which someone with a laptop “will be multitasking,” that someone is either participating in the meeting or is working on something else. They are not doing both.

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