CC3 – The Myth of Multitasking

The following was delivered at Sinchon Toastmasters on Sun May 26, 2013. I wrote the content in advance but spoke without notes so there was significant divergence from the text.

The strikeout text is what my evaluator recommended that I take out (and I agree)

Imagine the following scenario:

  • you’re sitting at your desk eating lunch when…
  • pop! you see an email from your boss asking to update an Excel spreadsheet
  • brrrrring! your boyfriend/girlfriend calls asking whether to go for dinner at School Food or Skin Food
  • knock-knock your teammate needs your help on the project you’re working on
  • uh-oh! a kakao message from a friend about watching Iron Man tonight
  • twump! your boss dumps a 20-page report on your desk to read over


The word for this situation is multitasking: when you have to juggle multiple goals simultaneously. Some facts about multitasking that you may already be aware of:

  • the concept of multitasking originated from computing in the 1960s
  • hiring managers consider it the #1 most important skill for a prospective employee
  • women tend to do more multitasking than men – but there’s no consensus who does it better

Now here’s the dirty little secret behind multitasking:

the better you are at multitasking, the worse you are at actually being productive

Don’t believe me?  I’ll show you:

  • pick up your agenda from your desk and fold it in half
  • pick up your pen, and when I say “Go”, write down the following as quickly as possible:
    • 1st column: numbers 1, 2, 3, …, 8, 9, 10
    • 2nd column: letters A, B, C, …, H, I, J
    • if you prefer, instead of A-B-C you may use ㅏ, ㅑ, ㅓ, ㅕ, …, ㅡ, ㅣ
  • what matters is going as fast as possible, then put your pen down and look up
  • Aaaaaand … GO!
  • <15 sec pause>

Now that was about 15 seconds, and I think pretty much all of you finished.

OK, now turn your page over.

We’re going to do the same exercise, but this time I want you to alternate columns, so it’s 1-A, 2-B, 3-C, …, 10-J.

Again, when you finish, put your pen down and look up.

Aaaaaand … GO!

<30 sec pause>

Now that was 30 seconds – TWICE as long – and some of you were still working.  As you can see, switching back and forth between even 2 simple tasks is incredibly inefficient.

The problem here is context switching.

In fact, it turns out the original use of computers as a model for the brain was kinda right but also terribly wrong.

The brain does resemble a computer, but not one from the 1960s: it’s really more like a modern day smartphone, where switching between apps takes a lot of time and leaves you asking “now where was I?

So what’s the solution to multitasking?

It’s actually a pair of techniques: monotasking and timeslicing.

Monotasking means working on just one task.  The problem with monotasking by itself is that we are bombarded by distraction, and it’s just a matter of time before we cave in and change gears.

That’s where timeslicing comes in.  You set a clock on a 15 minute cycle:

  • 12 minutes of monotasking
  • 3 minutes break

During those 12 minutes, any distractions should be pushed aside ruthlessly:

  • emails ignored and phone silenced
  • irrelevant documents closed or put aside
  • calls answered with “can I get back to you in 15 minutes?”  or “can we schedule a meeting for 3:45?”  Very few issues are so urgent that they can’t be pushed back 15 minutes.

At the end of the 12 minutes, when the timer goes off you drop whatever you’re doing, even if you’re still in the middle of it.

That break not only lets you rest your brain, but also reset it.  It gives you a chance to take a step back and decide whether the current task is still the highest priority, or if you should switch gears to something else.

The beauty of this system is that it ensures not only that you’re doing the task right, but that you’re doing the right task.

I strongly urge you adopt this strategy of monotasking with timeslicing starting this week.

All you need is a simple kitchen timer or a stopwatch – there are even smartphone apps I can show you.

At first you might get some funny looks from your boss or colleagues when they hear the tick-tick-tick-ring! – but just treat that as another distraction to filter out.

Or better yet, show them your smartphone and explain how that’s what you don’t to be operating like.

Trust me, they’ll respect your new workflow when they see your enhanced productivity, and maybe even try it out for themselves.

The hardest part, of course, is the discipline: it takes a lot of discipline to push back on any distractions during those 12 minutes of monotask sprinting.

Equally, the discipline to put down whatever you’re working on when that timer goes off – ring! – and give yourself that well earned break.

Thank you.

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One Response to CC3 – The Myth of Multitasking

  1. susan chung says:

    It was quite entertaining to listen to you in the meetng compared to reading reading this original contents which can be more didactic. I can see the big difference of learning ability by listening to the speaker versus reading his material.
    Thanks for inviting me to that fantastic TM meeting.

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