Multitasking considered harmful

I saw an interesting quote on a technology blog that I follow called Slashdot:

To do two things at once is to do neither. — Publilius Syrus

(As a nerdy aside, Slashdot always has some random quotation at the bottom of the page, mimicking a traditional program on Unix systems call “fortune” that does the same thing when you log in on the terminal.)

As a project manager, and as a student with a job and a family, the question of multitasking comes up often. Personally, I don’t believe you can do a good job on two things at once. You may be able to do an adequate job, but I would find it depressing to go through life merely being adequate. I want to be excellent. I want everything I produce to be excellent. I want the people around me to strive for excellence.

When I tell people that I go to school, have a job and have a family, they ask me, “how do you do it?” And my reply is, “I cheat.”

Because I know I’ll never do my best at any of them. I constantly have to make decisions about who to shortchange and who to put off. Last quarter I skipped my youngest daughter’s kindergarten graduation and took a final exam instead. Several times I’ve handed in papers I knew weren’t my best because I chose to spend the extra time playing with my kids. My long-time business partner and friend has put up with me and my reduced workload, but has at times been frustrated by my decision to return to school for a master’s degree. My wife has picked up pretty much all of the kid’s doctor’s appointments, social occasions, laundry, dishes, etc.

As a project manager I wear several different hats on several different projects, constantly switching between them. And the other people staffing those projects are also working on multiple projects, perhaps wearing their own sets of different hats. More often than not, this causes the schedule to slip and the quality to suffer as we spend more time trying to pick back up where they were than we spend doing quality, productive work.

I fondly remember the days when I only had one job. I could lose myself for hours at a time perfecting a system build script, testing various storage configurations or planning the procedures for a big migration. I did good work and felt good about it. It got done quickly, and I could move on to the next challenge.

I’ve been studying a software development methodology known as “Agile”. Once of its core principles is focus: the team working on a particular product works only on that product for a certain length of time. They are immersed in that product and able to do a better job of it faster. I’m trying to apply this technique, but it will take a cultural shift within the whole organization for it to work.

Anyway, I have to get back to what I was doing.


1 Response to “Multitasking considered harmful”


  1. 1 Carl Wolford September 16, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Phillip,

    I enjoyed this post about multitasking. One caveat I have to the argument is that over time you become so proficient at multitasking that you learn to prioritize and sift through projects and learn what is most important. This is key in growing as a professional and serves as an invaluable lesson. While you must cheat to succeed at multitasking and make sacrifices, you are also learning to be a leader by becoming an expert as making those decisions quickly. I have similar responsibilities but have noticed that each quarter I am able to master multitasking to the point that I am able to spend more time with my kids and wife as I progress through the program. Multitasking may be an evil, but a necessary one that many will encounter throughout their professional careers. Few are lucky enough to be able to focus on only one thing at a time.

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