I can dance, but I can’t juggle.

It’s some­thing I’m almost afraid to admit in this fast-paced mod­ern world, but one of the things I sim­ply can­not do is mul­ti­task. The abil­i­ty to work on mul­ti­ple things at the same time seems to be a very valu­able skill in today’s job mar­ket, and many résumés for tech­nol­o­gy and infor­ma­tion work­ers boast the abil­i­ty to jug­gle tasks.

In 1993 I bought my first com­put­er with a mul­ti­task­ing oper­at­ing sys­tem. In the nine years from ages four­teen to twen­ty-three I did all of my com­put­ing on an IBM PCjr which nev­er even had a hard dri­ve. Every time I turned it on I boot­ed from a flop­py disk, then took the boot disk out to replace it with a disk con­tain­ing the pro­gram I want­ed to run. I had no win­dow­ing inter­face and when I want­ed to switch pro­grams I had to save my work, exit the cur­rent pro­gram, switch flop­py disks, and start up the next pro­gram. I had none of the Alt-Tab or Com­mand-Tab task switch­ing found on mod­ern oper­at­ing systems.

I used that machine for writ­ing, games, crude pix­el (or ANSI) based art­work, and con­nect­ing to the world dig­i­tal­ly via a 1200 baud modem. I did a lit­tle pro­gram­ming in those days, most­ly writ­ing imi­ta­tions of my favorite video games. Once upon a time, writ­ing code was a fun lit­tle hobby.

Nowa­days when peo­ple get sys­tem upgrades it’s a cause for relief or even cel­e­bra­tion. Trade your three year old com­put­er in for the lat­est mod­el and you’ll get some mod­er­ate increase in respon­sive­ness, some extra space to store your files, or if you’re upgrad­ing the oper­at­ing sys­tem you might get a handy new fea­ture or two.

When I did that upgrade in 1993, it was from a 4.77MHz proces­sor to a 66MHz proces­sor, from 640KB of RAM to 20MB of RAM, from a 360K flop­py disk dri­ve to an 80GB hard dri­ve, from PC-DOS 3.3 to OS/2—an oper­at­ing sys­tem fea­tur­ing a graph­i­cal user inter­face and pre­emp­tive multitasking.

Mul­ti­task­ing! I was skep­ti­cal of the idea at first. I knew that the proces­sor was not doing simul­ta­ne­ous oper­a­tions; that instead the oper­at­ing sys­tem rationed out the CPU cycles the way that vaca­tion resort own­ers sell time­share prop­er­ties. You can do mul­ti­ple things at the same time, but each one will take twice as long, right?

That would have been true except that even run­ning pro­grams on the old 4.77 MHz proces­sor, almost all the time the proces­sor was doing lit­tle but wait­ing for user input. With a proces­sor four­teen times as fast (prob­a­bly much faster than that even), each pro­gram was get­ting more resources than it need­ed most of the time.

As I exper­i­ment­ed with this new pow­er I was fas­ci­nat­ed by it. At the time, most of the peo­ple I knew used either PCs with Win­dows 3.0 or 3.1, or Macs with Sys­tem 7—operating sys­tems with coop­er­a­tive mul­ti­task­ing, which allowed the user to open mul­ti­ple pro­grams but which could­n’t be relied upon to run tasks in the back­ground. I loved show­ing off this machine’s abil­i­ty to mul­ti­task. In those days, most fil­ters or oper­a­tions in Pho­to­shop required the user to wait as much as sev­er­al min­utes for results when work­ing with print-res­o­lu­tion files.

I did demon­stra­tions where I’d open a file in Pho­to­shop, start a proces­sor-inten­sive oper­a­tion, then while the progress bar crept for­ward I’d open up a word proces­sor and start edit­ing my résumé. Then I’d open up some arcade game and shoot some aliens or aster­oids. Then I’d check back in Pho­to­shop just in time to see the progress bar near the finish.

No more wait­ing for Pho­to­shop! I could do oth­er things in the mean­time. I thought every­one should be impressed by this demon­stra­tion, but most­ly I think my friends just wished I’d shut up about OS/2. Even­tu­al­ly oth­er com­put­ers got bet­ter at mul­ti­task­ing and every­one else caught on to mul­ti­task­ing. Peo­ple start­ed work­ing in much more frag­ment­ed ways, claim­ing to be able to do two, three, or even twen­ty things at once. Mul­ti­task­ing became a job require­ment. Just because a com­put­er could divide its atten­tion across mul­ti­ple tasks, peo­ple became required to as well.

Mer­lin Mann of 43folders.com ques­tions whether it is even pos­si­ble to do mul­ti­ple things simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. He says those who claim to are fool­ing them­selves and actu­al­ly mak­ing them­selves less effec­tive. He is essen­tial­ly mak­ing the same argu­ment I did sev­en­teen years ago, though he’s cer­tain­ly more right than I was. I’m will­ing to accept that there are some peo­ple who have the abil­i­ty. Con­ven­tion­al wisdom/legend has it that women are nat­u­ral­ly bet­ter mul­ti­taskers than men, and I can’t com­ment on that, hav­ing no expe­ri­ence being a woman. Still, if some do it bet­ter than oth­ers, it must be possible.

Whether some peo­ple can mul­ti­task or not, I’m one of those who cannot.

My mind changes states only with much dif­fi­cul­ty. When I write code for four hours and stop to go to my draw­ing table, I end up draw­ing with my mind work­ing as though I were pro­gram­ming. It’s an excel­lent occa­sion­al per­spec­tive-shift exer­cise, but a ter­ri­ble way to get any­thing done.

I seem to need a peri­od of inac­tiv­i­ty or mod­er­ate busy­work to facil­i­tate the tran­si­tion from one kind of task to anoth­er. In the exam­ple above, after writ­ing code for say, four hours if I move right to the draw­ing table and try to work on art­work, I’ll still be in a cod­ing mind­set after four frus­trat­ing hours of draw­ing. I need some­thing to pro­vide a tran­si­tion, whether it is tak­ing a walk, prepar­ing a meal, wash­ing the dish­es, tak­ing a nap—anything that releas­es the focus on the pre­vi­ous task but which is not too men­tal­ly engag­ing. It is as if my mind is a motor that needs to have the clutch pulled before shift­ing gears.

I don’t know any­thing about behav­ioral sci­ence or neu­ro­science so I won’t attempt an expla­na­tion. From a prac­ti­cal per­spec­tive, «why» is irrelevant.

Since mul­ti­task­ing does­n’t mean hav­ing two brains work­ing in par­al­lel, it real­ly means that effec­tive mul­ti­taskers are actu­al­ly adept task-switch­ers. They put one task on hold and go imme­di­ate­ly to anoth­er. Being hand­i­capped by my slow abil­i­ty to switch tasks means that I am a ter­ri­ble mul­ti­tasker. When I can focus on one thing and exclude every­thing else, I am at my best.

I’m nev­er­the­less fre­quent­ly tempt­ed to try. My com­put­er usu­al­ly has dozens of win­dows or tabs open. The dan­ger is that I can fall into the trap of doing noth­ing but task-switch­ing. First I’ll check my email, load up Brighthand.com to check for news of new mobile phones, check my identi.ca and Twit­ter, check the local news head­lines and maybe take a look at Face­book. I do this pre­tend­ing that I’m get­ting the lit­tle things out of the way before get­ting start­ed on the real work. But it does­n’t work that way. By the time I get fin­ished, a new email might have arrived. By the time I get done fol­low­ing up on that email, some­thing else might have changed. The process begins again and if I’m not care­ful large chunks of time can get wast­ed mov­ing from triv­ial unnec­es­sary task to triv­ial unnec­es­sary task.

Many of the projects I work on are fair­ly com­pli­cat­ed, requir­ing mul­ti­ple win­dows and appli­ca­tions to be open. Even when I’m focused on a task it means switch­ing from one brows­er to the shell to a sec­ond brows­er to an IDE or text edi­tor to Pho­to­shop to my email and back to the first brows­er. Set­ting up all these pro­grams and win­dows takes a not incon­se­quen­tial amount of time so I fre­quent­ly leave all these win­dows open and pro­grams run­ning. This saves me from the repet­i­tive task of set­ting up the win­dows and log­ging in to all the accounts but also means that my com­put­er, the place I do this kind of work, is itself a con­stant source of dis­trac­tions. That some of these dis­trac­tions are legit­i­mate­ly impor­tant tasks does not mat­ter. If they get in the way of doing one thing at a time, I’ll be lost in the morass of going from win­dow to win­dow on the com­put­er with­out ever accom­plish­ing anything.

When I’m set up to have only one task in front of me at a time, I am at my most effec­tive. So I usu­al­ly do my writing—even blogging—on paper. I then type what I’ve writ­ten into a word proces­sor or wher­ev­er it needs to be. Forc­ing myself to write a sec­ond draft helps me—I usu­al­ly find ways to econ­o­mize and clar­i­fy as I type in what is in the note­book. More impor­tant­ly, my note­books (paper note­books that is) do not have instant mes­sen­ger clients or email com­pet­ing for my atten­tion. Often I have cats com­pet­ing for my atten­tion, but that’s a total­ly dif­fer­ent kind of distraction.

Years back I used to write on a Palm Tung­sten T. I fre­quent­ly got ques­tions about how I could get any­thing done with some­thing so small, under­pow­ered, and with (com­pared to desk­top com­put­ers) few soft­ware options. The answer is that I got much more done because of those fac­tors. The minia­ture com­put­er (and that’s what a hand­held device—even a cellphone—is) did­n’t have the capa­bil­i­ty to have mul­ti­ple appli­ca­tions open simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. When I wrote, the word proces­sor was the only thing in front of me. As a tool sup­port­ing my abil­i­ty to get writ­ing done, the device I could fit in my pock­et was far more effec­tive than any word proces­sor on a desk­top com­put­er since I used PC-Write on that old PCjr. No «mod­ern» word proces­sor has ever deliv­ered an envi­ron­ment where I could focus exclu­sive­ly on writ­ing, and I have used quite a few: Microsoft Word, Lotus Ami Pro (lat­er called Word Pro), Word­Per­fect, DeScribe, StarOf­fice, OpenOf­fice, Mol­lum, and Apple Pages. Even in their full-screen modes the dis­trac­tions have always been too close at hand. Even the WYSIWYG fea­tures of these word proces­sors become a dis­trac­tion from the process of writing.

Not every­thing I do so eas­i­ly lends itself to sin­gle­task­ing. As I wrote ear­li­er, web­site devel­op­ment requires sev­er­al pro­grams to be opened at once. The chal­lenge is: what work­ing prac­tices sup­port focus and how can I bet­ter enforce unin­ter­rupt­ed flow in order to get things done?

Here are some of the things that have worked for me. I don’t always do them, and none of these are hard and fast rules.

  1. Take advan­tage of browsers’ sup­port for saved tab sets. If I know that I can eas­i­ly get at the set of web­site win­dows I need for a par­tic­u­lar project, I can close those win­dows when I’m not work­ing on them and not wor­ry about los­ing part of the setup.
  2. Turn Dock (or taskbar if you use one of those oper­at­ing sys­tems) hid­ing on. Even if I have a lot of appli­ca­tions open, I don’t need a con­stant reminder. This can be hard, since the visu­al acces­si­bil­i­ty of the Dock serves as a secu­ri­ty blan­ket. I like being able to see my options in front of me. Like oth­er forms of secu­ri­ty blan­ket, the rewards of let­ting go can out­weigh the rewards of hang­ing on.
  3. Read Inbox Zero. Mer­lin says it bet­ter than I can, but at a bare min­i­mum set­ting your email client to poll for email only once per hour—or bet­ter yet only when you tell it to check—means not being interrupted. 
  4. Dis­able bounc­ing Dock noti­fi­ca­tion or at least set them to bounce only once. If an appli­ca­tion wants to alert me that some­thing has hap­pened so I can take note and keep work­ing, that’s OK. Con­tin­u­ing to nag me until I switch appli­ca­tions and read the mes­sage is unacceptable.
  5. Take advan­tage of mul­ti­ple vir­tu­al desk­tops. Near­ly every oper­at­ing sys­tem has some form of vir­tu­al desk­top sys­tem avail­able. On the Mac since Leop­ard it’s Spaces. It’s not a per­fect solu­tion, but sep­a­rat­ing project win­dows into their own desk­tops means hid­ing one project and show­ing anoth­er, all with one key­press. This falls apart when appli­ca­tions can­not open mul­ti­ple win­dows but have to have all their infor­ma­tion in the same win­dow. In those cas­es, give that appli­ca­tion its own vir­tu­al desk­top or space.
  6. Don’t fear the full-screen mode. Many more appli­ca­tions than you might expect have one. Those that don’t can usu­al­ly be max­i­mized. It depends on the nature of what I’m doing but if I spend sig­nif­i­cant amounts of time in one appli­ca­tion I like to have it take up all the visu­al space.
  7. Use pen and paper. You don’t have to go so far as to write out your work in paper to get the ben­e­fit. Using a paper note­book for notes, lists, unan­swered ques­tions, dia­grams, and mis­cel­la­neous ideas gets those things out in front of you and you won’t have to remem­ber them or leave your cur­rent appli­ca­tion to get them down. Unless you have a flaw­less dig­i­tal orga­ni­za­tion sys­tem, notes in a paper note­book will be eas­i­er to find lat­er, too. Chart­ing and mindmap­ping soft­ware pack­ages have their place but they work best when they have your full focus and attention.
  8. Use a to-do list/task man­ag­er. This may seem to con­tra­dict the pre­vi­ous sug­ges­tion, but I like to record tasks sep­a­rate­ly from notes. This could be in a paper plan­ner, but I do it dig­i­tal­ly rather than on paper. GTD adher­ents refer to this as «ubiq­ui­tous cap­ture» of your tasks. Things and Omni­Fo­cus both have hotkey-trig­gered pop­ups that you can bring up, enter the task, and dis­miss. Lat­er you can sort through the tasks and pri­or­i­tize, but for the moment just get it out of your head and move on. Some peo­ple use Quick­sil­ver with spe­cial com­mands to pipe into text files. There are far too many vari­a­tions of this idea to list. The crit­i­cal fea­ture is to quick­ly get the infor­ma­tion record­ed with­out hav­ing to leave the pro­gram you’re work­ing in.

Any­one who believes him or her­self to be an awe­some mul­ti­tasker prob­a­bly won’t find these sug­ges­tions help­ful. If mul­ti­task­ing is real­ly work­ing for you, keep on truck­ing. I sus­pect that on bal­ance try­ing to do too many things at once caus­es more pro­duc­tiv­i­ty loss­es than gains. Even if you think you’re an effec­tive mul­ti­tasker, it’s worth tak­ing a real­i­ty check to make sure.

Just because your com­put­er mul­ti­tasks does­n’t mean you have to.

One Reply to “I can dance, but I can’t juggle.”

  1. Sav­ing tabs

    Per­haps a com­ment on mul­ti­task­ing lat­er, but for now, any idea why my brows­er (Fire­fox) will — sud­den­ly — no longer save tabs?  When I exit the brows­er, it still asks if I want to save them, and I tell it I do, but next time I call it up, they’re gone.  What’s up with that?

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