How do you define multitasking?

I’m working on my book chapter about multi-tasking. There are studies out there that show multitasking severely degrades performance. From what I can tell, however, they’re talking about trying to do two things at exactly the same time. For example, talking on the phone and typing an email.

The kind of multitasking I find particularly pernicious is having multiple conflicting “top priorities,” which results in my spinning my wheels back and forth over the course of a day and doing less good work on either project. So it’s not at-exactly-the-same-time multitasking, but more like, rapid-switching-between-incompatible-tasks multitasking.

When my friend C— thinks of multitasking, she thinks of teenagers listening to music, IMing, and doing homework. To me, that seems less like multitasking and more like multi-sensory stimulation. Though if the IMing happens during homework problems (as opposed to between them), it could fit the definition of multitasking.

What does multi-tasking mean to you? Is there a difference for you between the do-things-at-same-time versus have-many-things-on-your-plate-and-switch-frenetically-between them?

Please note: by answering, you’re saying it’s fine for me to put your answers in my book chapter. Unless you give me other attribution, in the credits I’ll try to list your Blog login name or your full name if you include it somewhere in your post.

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28 Responses to How do you define multitasking?

  1. Kent says:

    It is overrated; focus is the new mantra!

  2. Jennifer Flaten says:

    I define multi-tasking not as doing two (or more) things at one time, but the ability to switch from item to item as needed. Switching from task to task as necessary and being able to switch from being deep in research to answering a client question. I see that as multi tasking.

  3. Alex Zarazua says:

    I think that every task or project we work on should receive 100% of our effort. How do you accomplish this when you are trying to give 100% when constantly switching back and forth between projects? You may think your “busy” multitasking, but are you really being “efficient”?

    To me, multi-tasking is the ability to handle those urgent things that come up (phone call, emergency meeting, a crisis on a project) and having the ability manage urgent items as the come up, but quickly jumping back to your original task.

    I’m not a big fan of multi-tasking. It’s more important to complete a project that is correctly, rather than completing it quickly.

  4. For me, multi-tasking doesn’t compliment creativity. If I need to compose something interesting or just think for 10 minutes, including a second task makes both take longer.

    If two things DON’T need special thought (brush teeth with one hand, fill dishwasher with the other), it can work slightly faster. Very few things fit that model for me.

    Relationships are a big part of multi-tasking. Folks must typically balance want they want against important stuff for others. It’s not so much the thing itself, but expectations you accept as part of the personal give-and-take.

    My successful multi-tasking usually means doing a little of what I want during the stream of what another group also wants. It’s not that either happens faster, just that the small breaks make it more interesting.

  5. Ten years ago, I was extraordinarily proud to call myself a multi-tasker. I was in my 30’s, had a husband, two dogs and a fabulous career. I could do it all and do it well. Cut to today – I have one kid, one dog, one husband and several things I’d call jobs. I can no longer multi-task effectively. Basically, I do as much as I can as well as I can and spend the rest of the time lamenting the things I haven’t managed to address and the fact that I can’t do the things I do as well as I would like to . . .

  6. Phil Yanan says:

    Multi-tasking the ability to manage several different tasks at one time. You can’t work on more than one single item at a time anymore than you can think about 2 thoughts at the same time. But the ability to transition efficiently and to prioritize and not lose something. That’s multi-tasking.

  7. Joel Derfner says:

    I’m of the switch-frenetically school. I can’t even walk and read at the same time–or, rather, I can walk slowly and read. But it’s impossible for me to walk quickly and read. I can knit and watch TV at the same time, but I usually do this only with shows I’ve already seen, because I can only pay partial attention to what’s on the screen.

  8. Daniel Lowen says:

    When I’m working well, I don’t multi-task; I manage tasks.

    Some tasks require committed, uninterrupted thought. If they’re urgent, I do them NOW, and shut myself off from all else. Otherwise, they wait until the flow of little stuff slows later in the day.

    Other larger tasks can tolerate interruption, in which case I interrupt them every 10-15 minutes to see if there are any e-mails I can deal with quickly and get rid of.

    The only TRUE multi-tasking I do is reading on the toilet.

  9. I’d define multitasking as having more than one ongoing task, but not necessarily at the same time. If I’m asked to complete from 0% to 100% of a single task, I’ll get so bored of it that it will take me a long while. I’m more efficient when I put an hour or two into one task, then switch to another to exercise a different part of my brain. By switching back and forth like this, my productivity seems to peak at around 3-5 tasks.

    I once had a boss who didn’t understand this at all — a lifelong engineer, he was much more comfortable conducting tasks separately and sequentially from start to finish. So, I drew for him a graph of the number of tasks (x-axis) versus my productivity (y-axis); the curve started at, arbitrarily, a productivity of “2” for 1 task, increased to, say, “5” for 3-4 tasks, and then dropped back below “2” at about 6-8 tasks. This made him understand how he could actually increase my productivity by giving me more work to do (within reason).

    I find that switching between several tasks not only makes me more time-efficient, but increases the quality of my work. Like many people, I subconsciously work on problems — most people have had the “waking in the middle of the night with the solution” experience at one time or another of intense pressure. Switching to another task allows me to take the conscious spotlight off a task and let it simmer in mind. That’s one reason becoming an espresso drinker has made me more efficient: it’s not the small dose of caffeine, but rather the five-minute mindful ritual of grinding, priming, and brewing each cup that engages me and lets my head get out of its own way to solve a problem.

  10. I’d agree with Phil Yanan’s comment with one amendment: “you can’t work on more than one single item at a time anymore than you can _consciously_ think about 2 thoughts at the same time”. Anyone who’s ever hummed along to the radio while eating a french fry and (successfully) driving a car knows what I mean. You’d never be able to do that the first time you drove, or the first time you heard the song, but the brain is really good at bumping tasks that have become routine to lower levels of consciousness.

    Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on the nature of the “routine” task…

  11. Sacha jenkyn says:

    For me multitasking is trading, looking after my daughters, doing my University course and potentially answering to skype messages or phone calls simulteanously. Although I manage to do it all, it leaves me a lingering feeling of not doing my best.
    This summer with the help of my sons I delegated some housechores tasks and they helped me looking after the girls while I was studying or trading. ( notice the ” or”). The result was mind-blowing; I was able to study twive as much content in an hour but my performance in trading quadrupled!
    My lesson is now learned and I try to do only one thing at a time. I also try not to frantically go from one activity to another but have some quiet or fun time along the way. It works extremely well- so I’m going to keep doing it.

  12. Tom Streeter says:

    The way I’m hearing your question is if multitasking slices time horizontally or vertically.

    No, really, that’s what I’m hearing.

    Your first description describes time being sliced vertically: You work on Task A, then stop and work on Task B, then maybe onto Task C, then back to A again.

    (Forgive me Grammar Girl, for I have sinned…)

    Your second example has time being sliced horizontally: tasks aren’t bound to a time period, but allowed to take precedence as cognitive cues dictate.

    The problem is. of course, that the latter is the way we actually work as humans. The tension that arises from the former is that we can’t really “shut off” one task from another when we don’t have the cognitive cues to discriminate among them.

    On the surface it may seem as if the teenager (or middle-aged system administrator, for that matter) is multitasking when there are multiple browser, console, IM and Twitter windows open on the screen and there’s music playing, but in reality there’s not. At any given instant the person is either attending to one thing or monitoring the available cognitive landscape to see what needs attention.

    There’s a spatial element to this as well. If I can consolidate my cognitive sinks into one location, I can more easily manage things. If I have to physically travel from one place to another — even if it’s just across a room — stress and grumpiness is likely to occur. It’s much more difficult to place things into a foreground/background processing mode.

    Figuring out how to manage these sorts of things is why we buy books and listen to podcasts about managing these sorts of things. I love your podcasts and look forward to the book!

  13. Lydia says:

    I read somewhere that there is no such thing as multi-tasking – it is really serial tasking – when I multitask or witness others doing this, I feel we not present in the moment and we are more likely to produce ‘shallow’ work which lacks the rich wrapping we can provide when we are more focused on one thing at a time…

  14. Danny Skarka says:

    If I could flatten out the work peaks of my day, I would not need to be doing three things at once. My definition of multi-tasking is spending 5 minutes on one project, then 5 minutes on another. Then 5 minutes on a third. Then rejoining project 1. IMing or being inturrupted during all three is not multitasking….that’s just normal. That comes from the ‘cubical office’ .

    For me, all this results in stream of conscious email…..just like this. Spelling and grammer optional.

  15. Jeff Foley says:

    I think there are two ways to define “multitasking.” One is good, one is not.

    The pernicious version of multitasking is when you’re actually trying to do two things at once. You’re on a conference call and writing emails at the same time. You’re not really participating in the conference call, and the quality of the email work you’re doing is affected. Ditto for Blackberrying during meetings, responding to IM’s in the middle of a one-on-one meeting with your direct reports… you get the idea.

    But there’s a healthy kind of multitasking, one that I have personally become fond of. It involves pushing multiple projects forward a little bit at a time. It involves managing priorities on a minute by minute rather than an hour by hour basis. It involves bouncing back and forth between tasks but getting all of them done collectively faster than if I had budgeted an hour to do the first one, another hour to do the second one, and so forth.

    I find that I must be in the mood to do something if I want to be most effective. This presentation may need to be done by Friday, but right now I feel like I should work on this spreadsheet. In this sense, multitasking is really “context-switching.” I also find that while I may have some main task I need to get done (that presentation), I do better to attack it in short sessions until my brain clicks and I feel like I have a better sense of what I’m trying to accomplish with that project. (Or the deadline gets too close, and I have to buckle down and slog through the work, which generally results in subpar output.)

    More importantly, my “quality of [work] life” is better. I enjoy working with ten windows open, swapping between Facebook and email and three projects I’m working on. That’s how I get things done. It’s the right kind of multitasking, and it feels more efficient and a helluva lot more enjoyable than shackling myself to finish one project at a time.

    There’s a great writeup from 2003 on the topic of “Nerd Attention Deficit Disorder” by a blogger I enjoy, Rands. It puts some of this even more eloquently than I could. His premise is basically with the current information firehose, many people have learned how to context switch and deal with interruptions and still get done what they need to get done.

  16. Tim Noyce says:

    The Cognitive Psychology take on multitasking is that it is not in fact possible. Your attention skips rapidly among a limited (about 5) main tasks. As a task becomes very practiced it becomes “automated” ie you need to pay very little attention to it to execute it. This is the difference between driving a car as a learner (requires 100% of your attention) and as an experienced driver (10-50% depending on conditions).

    It is therefore possible to divide your attention between a limited number of highly automated tasks until novelty or surprises of any kind crop up (car in front of you brakes unexpectedly). Multitasking for any large complex task is not truly possible – you are in the refocus/bookmarking territory familiar to any practictioner of GTD.

  17. Michael Purpura says:

    To me, multi-tasking means coordinating multiple inputs and outputs. For example, if I have my wife in the room dictating a food list to me and my sister on the phone dictating a recipe, multi-tasking means keeping these inputs and outputs sorted so they don’t get mixed up–I don’t accidentally write “curry powder” on the Strawberry Short Cake recipe.

    I don’t think people do multiple things at the same time usually. A teenager with music on, IMing, and doing homework generally does only one of these things at any given time (unless they integrate them, like tying the song lyrics into the chat). If their attention is on the homework, then the chat is idle and they are deaf to the music. If their attention is on the chat, then their homework is at that moment neglected and they are deaf to the music. If their attention is on the music, then their homework is at the moment neglected and their chat is idle.

    And yet, I think people can actually learn to pat their head and rub their belly at the same time, but this kind of dual-tasking requires separating the left and right sides of the body for separate tasks.

  18. John Wolfe says:

    I own my own computer consulting company. I am a programmer for hire. Most years, I make X amount of money.

    A couple of years ago, I decided to try an experiment. Instead of my usual “work for one company at a time” philosophy, I tried working for two to four different companies at the same time. I would then “switch off”, or multitask (as Stever is describing) often – sometimes a few times each day.

    It was horrible. Not only did my billable hours go WAY down, I also felt like I was getting very little done. I always felt like I was “coming up to speed” to work on the next client’s work, instead of making progress on a single client’s needs.

    I found that I worked roughly twice as hard, and only billed out half as much. All told, I do not “multitask” well at all.

    Then again, my work tends to be VERY detail oriented, very in-depth, and very specific to a particular client.

  19. John says: – Multi-tasking negatively impacts our ability to learn deeply and remember things. Additionally, multi-tasking assumes task or priority equality, which rarely exists in life or business. The classic cliff hanger “You can only save one person, who do you save from falling to their death” rarely happens in life or business. If the unlikely cliff hanger darkens your door, how much capacity will you have to respond to that scenario, when your life is fragmented by less important priorities taking valuable time and energy away from vitally important ones.

    It’s like a super hero stopping to chat with on lookers at an apartment fire versus saving the people IN the apartment fire. PR is important, but saving lives sits a little higher on the list. Today,our lives are ablaze with doing more and more stuff, and we’re the arsonist!

    We robs ourselves of capacity to actually get important stuff done and instead lament our existance or chalk it up to “It’s society’s fault” or anything else, as we throw one more piece of kindling on our time fire.

    Time is short, as a reminder to those who forget that one day we won’t have any at all. On that day, what will be said of you: This person did a lot with got things done or This person did enough, which meant a lot. Choose wisely – time is infinite, your stake in it is not.

  20. Sara Woodhull says:

    For me, the problem is how to keep multi-tasking from becoming thrashing (in the computer sense). I have so many interests, and so many projects going all the time, that it’s difficult to focus on just one or on the appropriate one at the time. For example, I might need to accomplish a work task of writing a technical document, but my mind really wants to focus on my next shoe design or tie-dye project, while I’m trying to keep track of calls I need to make for arranging my kids’ playdates, and so on. In trying to juggle all these demands, I thrash uselessly and quickly from one to another, and I end up getting none of them done.

  21. markmacleo says:

    I thought I was a successful multi-tasker. Trained in banking operations and management in a very thorough traditional manner, I would plan the desks schedule, review account balances, say hello to customers and listen to all the important conversations happening around me that had the potential to improve my understanding of staff performance, training and customer behaviours.
    Actually now I know I was doing all those things with the same amount of resource as doing one and therefore performing under par on all, but as they were not life threatening it worked.
    My multitasking now comproses of one intellectual and one mechanical. e.g. wash dishes and listen to excellent enlightening podcasts. An evening class I did at The School of Philosophy (Scotland) highlighted five levels of awareness and from this I realised multi-tasking intellectual work is impossible if you want to do it well. 5 levels are: Deep sleep; Dream; Waking sleep; FUlly awake; Higher consciousness.
    What do you think?

  22. Nick Haynes says:

    You can never do two things at the same time, but you can swap between them. I think the trick is to work is reasonably large time chunks.
    My favourite way is to alternate brain work with grunt work. For example I start a task like writing some software or an article , as soon as I get stuck I go and work in the garden or do a bit of filing. When I return to the writing the problem has usually cleared.

    There is an exception (isn’t there always) and that is listening to audio books or French Language lessons whilst driving.

  23. peakaytea says:

    Anyone who says it can’t/shouldn’t be done has never breastfed babies! Yes, breastfeeding is a wonderful bonding experience not to be missed…I did it for more than a year with triplets…but it’s also a great time to read, and to maintain your sanity by reading. It’s good for the babies, and good for you. It’s sometimes a challenge for them and for you. Reading can bridge that gap.

    In summary, let’s not get too rule-bound about multitasking, at the risk of looking silly. There’s a time and place. Breastfeeding and driving … not a good idea. Breastfeeding and working…not if you’re a bus driver. Breastfeeding and catching up on your professional journals? Do it!

  24. Bevan Arps says:

    In the computer field (where I work) we talk about the cost of a “context switch” – in grossly simplified terms, the amount of work the computer has to do to switch from running one application to running another.

    I’ve found that this idea translates well from digital-space into meat-space.

    I can effectively manage several co-existing tasks, provided that each is relatively simple – that the amount of context I need to reload when I return to a task is low.

    Scanning twitter while I read blog entries and email is easy because the amount of context is low, and I only switch tasks when each is completed.

    Tracing through a complex piece of software code to understand a subtle fault or edge condition – a task which might take two or three hours of extreme focus – isn’t something I can do with any distractions at all.

    The proximity of the tasks is also relevant – I can switch between the different dishes of a meal I’m cooking pretty easily, even though each dish requires very different preparation and cooking, because all of the tasks are in the same place.

    If I tried to cook, read email and drive at the same time, well that would be messy.

    Another aspect is how ready you are to deal with interruptions. I really hate being interrupted when I’m deep into something complicated, because I know that it’s going to take me 15 or 30 minutes to get back to that point after dealing with the interruption. So, I turn off twitter, email and other distractions so I can concentrate. But, if Miss Six has had a nightmare and needs a cuddle, then that interrupt has to be honoured – because she’s more important.

    So, to summarize – I don’t think it’s as simple as multi-task or not. The complexity and proximity of the tasks needs to be managed, interruptions have to be minimized or managed – and sometimes interruptions have to take priority.

    New Zealand.

  25. Stever says:

    Tim: (#16) I read your comment and agreed with it until … remembering all the recent research about cell phone use while driving.

    Even hands-free cell phone use with driving produces reaction times on par with being drunk.

    Surely, both using a cell phone and driving are habitual, unconscious behaviors. Yet doing them both at once severely degrades the one that has cognitive load [driving].

    The amazing thing is how unbelievably bad humans are at judging their own performance. And how ego-invested we are in the idea that we can multitask.

    I suspect even tasks we consider “thoughtless” would be done better if we gave them our full attention.

    EXERCISE: for one day, give every task your full, 100%, undivided attention as you do it. At the end of the task, jot down in a notebook if you notice any difference in your output or experience. Only do the jotting when you’re done with a task, of course, otherwise that itself would constitute multitasking.

  26. Stever says:

    People keep asking “are we evolving to be able to multitask?” That question shows a poor understanding of evolution. Unless a trait prevents or enhances reproduction, it won’t be affected by evolution. Not sure multitasking would make a significant difference in reproduction.

  27. Ted Kinzer says:


    I try to multitask like everyone, TV on, surfing the net, playing online poker, talking to my wife about why our child is struggling in school… huh, what was that honey :)

    I think we multitask (or not) like a computer, we are time slicing our attention, we really aren’t multitasking, unless you count breathing, and other bodily functions while we do whatever activities we do… Hey if I am chewing gum to does that count ; )

    When I want to work on intensive ‘thinking’ type work, I can only concentrate on one task at a time.

    Ted Kinzer
    Twitter: @terribleted66

  28. J T says:


    In response to your cellphone and driving example (and Tim’s comment prior), I’d like to point out a couple of things.

    Firstly, while using a cellphone (i.e. dialing, holding it, etc) is a habitual, unconscious thing, the conversation itself is not. Conversations are always medium to high cognitive load. Even conversations where you’re not paying as much attention are still only medium load, because language and comprehension are rarely low load. So your example is correct, but not your assertion that both are thoughtless and hence not applicable to what you’re trying to prove.

    Second, I agree that ultimately any task,even “thoughtless” ones, would be better done given more resources (ie full attention). What it comes down to is whether the quality of what you are doing requires it. It’s the whole “good enough versus great” debate. Those who knit while watching TV are in the good enough category as they know that a single less than ideal stitch won’t ruin the whole thing. Also, when “novelty crops up” (as Tim puts it), it’s ok to make a minute to figure out which stitch went wrong and the cost to fix it is not high.

    This is where driving cars is different. WIth driving cars on auto-pilot, good enough versus great has to do with the the time to do the cognitive load reprioritising and the results is you don’t — and unfortunately here a difference of one second to reprioritise matters, combined with the potential consequences (rear-end someone, or something worse) make it a bad idea.

    Of course, potential bas consequences are the 20 part of 80-20 rule in this case, which is why we tend to multi-task anyway…

    I think several people have hit the right points in their comments already. Here’s my take:

    1. Multi-tasking is possible but the word’s usage combines two different things: context switching and high/low cognitive loads in parallel. (See also Tom Streeter’s comment.)

    2. Context switching type multi-tasking is good or bad depending on the effort of the switching versus the time spent on task. (See also Bevan Arps’s comment.)

    In bad cases, you are doing a lot of mediocre work on multiple things, worst case being “thrashing”. In good cases, you are keeping multiple balls in the air or “in play”, ensuring nothing gets stuck.

    Important to realise, we do this all the time anyway — all we’re really talking about is the frequency. After all, many people switch between 4 tasks in the course of a work day. Just because each context switch happened after 2 hours we don’t think it’s multi-tasking. Make the frequency every 10 minutes, and that’s closer to what we’re talking about. But neither is inherently better or worse. What’s important is the balance between switching load and time on each task and matching that with expected effort/intended outcome/potential consequences.

    Ultimately intended outcome is important. Would you expect a firefighter going into a burning building to spend 30 minutes studying the structure and potential routes. No. Speed is important here, potential consequences are severe, so fast switching is what’s needed. One moment scanning the building, next moment radioing team outside, next moment using the hose, next moment dragging a survivor to their feet. That’s an extreme example, but there are lots of work environments where keeping multiple balls in the air is more important than getting one aspect perfect.

    On the other hand, some tasks are about quality/accuracy and not speed and there you want to spend hours, maybe even an entire day on something and not switch to anything else. Some work environments actually have very low interruption quotients because of that.

    3. High/low cognitive loads in parallel depend on how low the attention needed for the low task really is, and the good enough versus great aspect of the intended outcomes, as I explained above already.

    Note that this is the type of multi-tasking that we are all already doing every single day, we just don’t call it that. When you go for a walk you are breathing, moving legs, swinging arms, looking at your path and around the area for obstacles, etc etc. We don’t call it multi-tasking since most bodily functions move on auto-pilot all the time anyway. But they follow the same model of low cognitive load “until crops up”. Legs moving is automatic until you trip or sense something amiss under your feet. Eyes scanning are automatic until you see that “woman in red” walking past. All systems are automatic until your peripheral vision catches a football hurtling directly at your body. Even breathing is automatic until you either become breathless or you start thinking about it. Reading this sentence probably made you conscious of your breath for anywhere from 1 second to 5 minutes, until you move your attention elsewhere.

    Sorry, that perhaps became over-extended… was merely trying to point out that multi-tasking is normal, not new.

    And good or bad, like all things, depends on choosing a way of doing it that is in tune with intended outcome/possible consequences.

    Hope that helps.

    Look forward to your book.

    – JT