Context-switching and multi-tasking: It’s got to stop

I used to be detail-oriented, efficient and reasonably productive.  I prided myself on delivering high quality results on or before deadlines and rarely had to go back and fix anything.

In the last few months, I’ve noticed that I’ve been sending out emails with more typos, I’ve released software with more bugs or design flaws than usual and I’ve been significantly more absent-minded than my regular self.  Someone might start a conversation with me but by the time I’m expected to reply, I’ve no clue what they’ve just said because I was too busy thinking about other stuff.  Important stuff.  Like what I need to accomplish next and how I must not forget to research something.

Looking back, I realized this started around the same time I decided to improve my productivity.   As part of my new initiative, I started to listen to the occasional podcasts while working.  Every so often, I’d perk up when something interesting caught my ear but I was invariably too engrossed up in my work to have gotten the full context.  So I’d rewind the podcast in order to hear that section again.  By the time it played again, I’d be once more caught up in my work.  Sometimes I’d go through this routine 3 or 4 times before truly understanding what was being discussed.

I finally clued in that there was an issue when I reached for the rewind button while on a conference call and there simply wasn’t one.  I’d been idly reading an email while others discussed portions of the project I wasn’t intimately involved with.  I snapped out of it when I heard someone ask me a direct question which I was unable to answer intelligently due to lack of context.  Not a good feeling.


But knowing that I have a problem is not the same as knowing the root cause of the problem nor does it necessarily indicate how to fix said problem.  It took a while but I believe I have it figured out.

I’ve fallen into a rut where I feel inefficient unless I’m doing something “productive” at all waking moments.  Performing a mindless or repetitive task?  I could be learning something while I’m at it.  Two birds with one stone, you see.  Never mind that half the new material doesn’t sink in properly and my lack of attention causes me to introduce mistakes in my work, I’m being productive!  Multi-tasking is where it’s at, or so I’ve been told.

The Self-Help shelves at my local bookstore are loaded with books that claim to improve one’s productivity and many of them push the concept of multi-tasking.  The media continues the frenzy by making me feel like I should be constantly connected and “in-the-know” everywhere I go for everything I do.

I’m not normally easily influenced by media opinions so I really don’t know where I picked up the conviction that multi-tasking is the solution to accomplishing everything I want to accomplish and still get enough sleep in a day.  However, the conviction is so well entrenched that it will require conscious effort on my part to eradicate.  So from now on, I’ll be paying close attention to the tasks I’m trying to accomplish in order to avoid overloading my circuits.

Multi-tasking isn’t working for me.  Is it working for you?