Multitasking is a fallacy

Half an hour after arriving at the office, and Jared’s already fixed a nagging bug from yesterday. Feeling happy, he continued typing away at the keyboard. Until a small window slowly popped up with a “You have mail”. He pointedly ignored it… for about 30 seconds because his eyes kept flicking to the bottom right to stare at the innocent email letter icon at the taskbar.

Jared breathed in deeply and sighed, wondering what the interruption was. Oh, it’s Evil Email Ellen. This time, she had trouble logging in to a web site (3rd time this week!) developed by Jared, and asked for help. She’s also emailed her colleagues, her boss and even her boss’s boss. Jared’s surprised she didn’t let the cleaning lady know about it.

Since Ellen gave only an “I cant log in!! Pls advise.” with no screenshots and no error messages, Jared calmly composed an email query asking for more information. As soon as he clicked the Send button, the phone rang.

Picking up the phone to say “Good morning”, Jared began listening attentively to the rational and reasonable requests by Tenacious Tester Tammy. She was done with her current tests and required Jared’s help to reset some data. “Ok, no problem,” said Jared, and put down the phone.

“Uh Jared, can you come over for a sec?”

Othello the Obnoxious Oaf had stood quietly behind Jared, waiting patiently for him to finish the call. Already undergoing a mental meltdown, Jared forced an “Ok”, and followed Othello to his desk.

“I can’t seem to get this to work,” Othello pointed indignantly at the mess of code shown on his monitor. Jared gave the code a quick glance and found the error. As he began contemplating the choices of strangling Othello, patiently explaining the cause and cure for the error, or simply taking over the keyboard and just type in the solution, Jared’s conscience intruded and Jared began pointing out the parts of code to be changed. Halfway through the explanation, Jared heard his phone ring. Finishing with a “follow this example, and copy this chunk over here”, Jared walked quickly back.

“Oh hi Ellen, how can I help you?”
“Hi Jared, I tried logging in just now, and it worked! What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“Oh you must have! I really needed that analysis report, and I got in!”
“… Yes, I did fix something… Was that report okay?” Jared sighed, eager to end the conversation.
“Oh yes, thank you!”

Jared breathed in deeply, and was about to go back to his code when he remembered about Tammy’s request. And Othello came back with “Uh Jared, it’s still not working”. The innocent email icon also came back. Jared checked his email. It was Tammy, politely asking for her data reset. Ellen’s there too (Jared’s heart gave a lurch), replying with a “Thank you for your help” (sigh of relief).

Deciding quickly, Jared led Othello back to Othello’s computer, and proceeded to give him explicit instructions on how to solve the error without actually typing the solution for him. Smiling at Othello’s “Thanks Jared!”, Jared turned swiftly and went back to his desk to prepare the data for Tammy.

After executing the final update statement on the database, Jared called Tammy to let her know her data’s ready. The now irritating email icon came back, with the lethal combination of Othello standing innocently close by. Jared glanced wearily at his watch. 11:37 am. This was going to be a long day…

Psychological studies suggest that multitasking undermines human efficiency, that we weren’t made to multitask. Despite anything you hear from managers, friends or job descriptions, multitasking is harmful. Being able to handle several things just means nothing gets done, just “handled”. Joel gave an excellent multitasking debunker example for programmers.

Stop multitasking. Your brain will thank you.