(This post was recovered from the old blog and is originally dated 2007.)
New studies show that multi-taskers may not be as efficient as they think they are, trading concentration and excellence in a few areas for jack of all trades, master of none results:
“Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”
I used to love juggling many tasks, and took pride in all the things I could do at once, until I realized I was doing many things badly. I began cutting back some years ago, and found I not only got significantly better results, but my income went up. Trying to do many assignments meant getting mediocre results. Fewer assignments meant better results and higher rates. Cutting back on things like self publishing, mail order, conventions, etc has been very rewarding. I feel better, I sleep better, my work is better, my income went up. I still have more efficiency training to give myself. I still have a tendency to overdo.
Some folks don’t get it, however.
A long ago acquaintance was an absolute disaster at multi-tasking, but he was the last person to admit it. His scuttling and rushing about earned him the nickname “The Cockroach”, and while he convinced himself he was the go-to guy for everything, in the end he disappointed everyone by letting the ball drop in varying degrees on almost everything he did.
It ‘aint about working harder. It’s about working smarter.
Many assume that quick thinking is only for the young. Apparently not:
The young, according to conventional wisdom, are the most adept multitaskers. Just look at teenagers and young workers in their 20s, e-mailing, instant messaging and listening to iPods at once….
Recently completed research at the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford University suggests the popular perception is open to question. A group of 18- to 21-year-olds and a group of 35- to 39-year-olds were given 90 seconds to translate images into numbers, using a simple code…
The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy…
“The older people think more slowly, but they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on,” said Martin Westwell, deputy director of the institute.
Well, one hopes.
Here’s the advice of the experts, which also sounds remarkably like common sense:
Check e-mail messages once an hour, at most. Listening to soothing background music while studying may improve concentration. But other distractions – most songs with lyrics, instant messaging, television shows – hamper performance. Driving while talking on a cellphone, even with a hands-free headset, is a bad idea.
My worst multi-tasking period included doing up to 11 assignments at once. This was also due to the fact that I was such a low paid artist that doing anything less meant starving.
Now I can usually focus on two jobs at a time, sometimes three. No more than that. I prefer one major job and two small ones. That gives me a big assignment to dive in, and two smaller ones to give myself a break. They also are completed more quickly, giving me little bites of satisfaction. If one big job takes a year, a few small ones that take a week or month at a time can be emotionally satisfying.
EDIT: Shortly after I originally posted this, my work output plummeted, and I went through a lengthy period of low-paying, low-satisfaction assignments coupled with lousy productivity. I wondered if my more relaxed lifestyle contributed to the malaise, but I think it may have had more to do with a combination of illness, job dissatisfaction, and personal issues.
Now I have to work very hard to get back on my game. I have to be as super-productive as I was ten years ago to do all the work I have on my plate.
However, I no longer have to juggle mail order, and many convention appearances, along with my assignments. While I still have to produce a stack of pages this month, at least I can concentrate. I still have some bad habits to get under control, but my work output this year is a big improvement over the last several years.