Signs you might multitask and tips to drive performance as a software developer
For at least 10 years, the world has increasingly emphasized on advanced, digital technologies which bring with them limitless comfort and makes what was impossible to transact in seconds previously become real now. The increasing dependence on technologies allows everything to be just a click away.
No wonder someone can busy themselves talking on the phone using their left hand and making a business slide using their right hand – all while on a flight to their next business conference. Today, the value of a person lies at how well they are at diverting attention to many things and at how many jobs they can juggle in unison. The people who spend a lot of time on one thing are not rewarded.
“Multitasking makes you stupid”
However, the technologically-advanced economy humans are so proud of comes at a price: their ability to focus and prioritize what matters most, at work and in their home life. So much so that in the book Scrum: The Art Of Doing Twice The Work In Half The Time, Jeff Sutherland has infamously said “Multitasking makes you stupid.” In fact, what he says is a wakeup call for software developers, especially those practicing Agile, to go against the trend so ingrained in today’s business conduct.
In this article, we’ll look deeper into multitasking, examine multitasking from multiple different perspectives (i.e. neuroscientists and psychologists, Agile founders, and Axon Active experts), and see what we can do to contribute to a better organizational culture in software development.
“Multitasking is evil”, as clearly emphasized in a Scrum Alliance’s Certified ScrumMaster training course provided by Axon Active.
Known as task-switching, project-switching, or context-switching, multitasking means “the performance of multiple tasks at one time”. The term was originally derived from computer processing (“computer multitasking”) and emerged at the convent of the first computer.
Opposite to multitasking, monotasking (singletasking, or unitasking) is the performance on one task at a time.
2.1 Reasons underlying multitasking habit
The technology-based society demands people to multitask. Indeed, people constantly pay attention to (and get distracted by) many things at once with the urge that everything is to be done as soon as possible. In a study, some surveyees admitted that, the more they try to keep up with latest technologies and information, the more overwhelmed they become. However, they still crave for and are addicted to getting hooked up to all sorts of digital devices, being always-on, and accessing more information because it makes people feel emotionally-fulfilled and comfortable.
Speaking of this, University of Kansas’s Cognitive Psychology professor Paul Atchley and Ohio State University’s Assistant Professor of Communication Dr Zheng Wang said human brain is not designed to process multiple initiatives all at once. Multitasking turns people into hyper junkies who are constantly restless and unable to work on things that take long-term vision and deep reflective thoughts. In fact, the people who think long-term don’t multitask.
2.2 Characteristics of a typical multitasker
Many studies done and/or reported by numerous neuroscientists and psychologists in universities like Stanford University, Ohio State University and University of Kansas, have all agreed that habitual multitaskers share the following characteristics:
- Showing frequent cognitive deficits
- Less able to pay attention (i.e. slow to focus)
- Bad at managing memory
- Scoring low on recalling information
- Making more errors
- Less productive
- Easily influenced/distracted by factors irrelevant to the task currently handling
- Missing out significant emotional cues important in bonding with others
- Socially and emotionally unhealthy, especially young multitaskers
2.3 Multitasking across gender and age
Women and young people are stereotyped to outperform men and elders in multitasking, respectively. However, much evidence showed performances of multitasking males and females are equally low. Similarly, studies reported by Devora Zack (2015) showed the same harmful consequences multitasking has across multiple age groups – ranging from elementary school age to elders. As a result, multitasking does more harm than good – no matter gender and age.
3. The multitasking brain
Reproduced from Gráinne Logue 2016
3.1 The actual working of the multitasking brain
When we believe that we are doing two tasks at the same time, we just simply switch back and forth continually between tasks at breakneck speed, according to Stanford University’s neuroscientist Eyal Ophir. Multitasking forces our brain to constantly stop, regroup information, recall information, and rewire for new thinking. It depletes brain bandwidth and brain cells, costs the brain some time to run the whole process, and leads to continual brain fatigue.
“Multitasking blocks the flow of information into short-term memory. Data that doesn’t make it into short-term memory cannot be transferred into long-term memory for recall.”
3.2 Multitaskers cause multi-accidents
A Harvard study revealed that scattered focus puts a strain on human’s ability to encode information. An MRI scan of a driver concurrently listening to someone talking shows a considerable decrease in his attention by 37%! And that’s why multitaskers can’t recall information, are scatter-brained, cause (and suffer from) accidents, and score terribly low on productivity.
Keep in mind that multitasking term came at the time of the first computer. It seemed inadequate to put human brain on a par with computers. Unlike computers, human brains possess much lower capacity in processing information. Time and time again, studies have shown that “human beings have a crippling inability to do two tasks at once”. Forcing the brains to function like a computer is unrealistic and wreaking havoc on body and mind.
3.3 What we learn
Multitasking is a misleading delusion of “productivity” on the surface that secretly “eats up” people’s ability to handle a job effectively and deliver desired performance.
4. Multitasking takes its toll on personal life and well-being
4.1 Lower productivity and creativity
4.1.1 From science’s point of view
Two researches conducted in mid-1990s and 2001 persistently pointed to the fact that multitasking takes a toll on productivity and creativity. In fact, molecular biologist John Medina and professor Paul Atchley note multitaskers experience:
- 40% drop in productivity
- 50% more time to finish a job
- 50% more mistakes produced
- Significant decrease in creativity
MIT professor and psychologist Dr Sherry Turkle said “For every task you add to your multitasking, your efficiency degrades”. And this is particularly correct for complex tasks such as writing, thinking, or solving a complex problem.
4.1.2 From software development’s perspective
Agreeing with this, inventor of Scrum, Jeff Sutherland, quotes a chart that shows exactly how work efficiency significantly lowers for every task added. When we look at the table, we see that by adding the second task, the waste of energy due to “loss to context-switching” (multitasking) rockets to 20%, leaving 40% left for each task. By task number 5, the waste shoots up to 75%. At this point, there is zero chance to finish any task at all, don’t you think?
4.2 Emotional vulnerability
Another hidden cost of multitasking is it hurts multitaskers’ quality of life, relationships and everything else that matters to them besides work. “Extreme busyness is associated with decreased brain tissues in areas responsible for regulation of thoughts and feelings,” (Devora Zack 2015).
A recent study finds that, people concurrently using multiple high-tech devices (like smartphones and wearable smart devices) and interrupted by multiple distractions (social media, text messages, Skype messages, emails, phone calls, etc.) are frequently perceived by others as:
- Lacking respect for those present in front of them
- Having impaired listening skill – the ability of “truly hearing others”
- Lacking job leadership – they cannot resist being demanded and distracted by anything that draws their attention
- Acting “impolitely” and “impatiently”
“Stress associated with trying to multitask shrinks brain neurons; reduces problem solving [skills]; and decreases emotional regulation, resilience, and impulse control” (Devora Zack, 2015).
4.3 Lower IQ
Not only does multitasking cost the brain energy, time, and cells to function, it diminishes grey matter in the brain. In studies conducted by the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College London and the Stanford University, regular multitasking affects the human brain in ways that literally reduce one’s intelligence.
For those around you
What’s more puzzling, they find that simply sitting next to a multitasker makes you less intelligent by 17%. “Overloading yourself with too many competing stimuli shrinks the brain,” as indicated by a study. In details, multitasking habit stresses the brain out, resulting in peaks of cortisol (aka stress hormone). At this point, amygdala (playing a key role in the processing of emotions) floods the brain with aggression, fear and anxiety. And the part of the brain in charge of decision making and moderating social behavior gets smaller. The mind can no longer think clearly. Like Jeff Sutherland puts it, “Multitasking makes you stupid”. That’s why he said “multitasking is wasteful. Don’t do it!”.
Because of these reasons, Axon Active encourages its software engineers and all staff members to practice monotasking in order to avoid burnout and achieve more for the growth of our own and our long-term clients.
Workshops provided by Axon Active like Personal Agility Workshop equip course trainees with practical knowledge and hands-on skills that keep them agile and effective in the face of changeable work contexts.
5. Multitasking takes its toll on work performance
5.1 Wastes created by multitasking and what Agile methods can do
A study on four internally-developed projects at four companies using traditional engineering approaches conducted in 1996 by The Standish Group and reported in the Modernization Clearing a Pathway to Success has found that among the functions and features studied, only 7% were always used while 45% were never used. This is the very gap that modern-day agile methodologies are able to address and help save the day. The agile frameworks and practices like Scrum and Kanban in software development that Axon Active is using center on lean approach. Let’s look at lean approach in the following passage.
Based on the Toyota Production System originally invented for efficiently managing resources in automobile manufacturing, the lean approach in Kanban emphasizes on getting things done fast through the elimination of wastes in software development. In order to achieve that, Kanban practitioners use pull system and work-in-progress (WIP) limits. They continually remind the practitioners to do only one thing at a time, and pull in new item only when the current item gets finished off.
In Scrum, Jeff Sutherland (n.d.) holds firm that “multitasking is a form of wasted motion”. “It happens when people, systems or machines switch between contexts.” Jeff quoted in his book a study on “Dual Task Interference” conducted in the early 1990s by the scientist Harold Pashler, which clearly agreed with other studies on the harm that multitasking has on human brain and productivity. The study showed that “people can really only think about one thing at a time, that a certain amount of effort was involved in packing up one process, reaching into your memory and pulling out another, and then running that job. And each time you switch tasks, that process takes time.”
5.1.3 What we learn
In a lesson about “Multitasking”, Jeff Sutherland said it’s important a Scrum Master learns to make sure members of their software development team are kept from distractions and impediments that possibly make them switch from doing one task to another. “A good Scrum Master protects the team from distractions. A great Scrum Master finds the root cause of those distractions and eliminates them” (Geoff Watts). Meanwhile, it’s crucial for a Scrum Product Owner to show management that the software outsourcing teams can get more done only when they can focus on one thing at a time – without being pressurized to do more by the management.
The 7 types of Muda – or wastes, in software development
Different varieties of wastes as indicated by Toyota Production System’s inventor Taiichi Ohno
5.2 Multitasking weighs down team performance and team spirit
5.2.1 Optimistic findings about monotasking
The narrow focus on productivity and the multitasking culture are truly ineffective in bringing significant changes to software development team’s performance. Meanwhile, monotasking is beneficial for software developers in various ways. It allows the team to:
- Focus on one thing at the time
- Boost self-confidence in fulfilling a task
- Affect positively to work performance
- Improve fulfillment and happiness at work
To illustrate, in his book, Jeff Sutherland showed that a plunge in happiness metric always predicts a drop in productivity in matter of weeks. Furthermore, the Scrum founder shows happy, joyful people give:
- 16% better performance
- 32% more committed to the organization
- 46% more satisfied with their jobs
- 125% less burned out
5.2.2 Ideal work environment for software development teams
Jeff Sutherland encourages leaders, particularly in software development industry, to create an environment that:
- Promotes monotasking
- Increases individual job autonomy
- Shows zero tolerance for disrespectful and abusing members who spoils the organizational culture
- Encourages direct and fast feedback
This will create the right environment that unleashes the potential and enables software developers to work in happiness and joy.
6. Tips to improve performance as a software developer
As an increasing number of neuroscientists, psychologists, and Agile experts in the past and nowadays have urged us against multitasking, they emphasize the importance of singletasking. Follows are some of their tips to help us stop this destructive habit.
Remember that “multitasking makes you stupid” (Jeff Sutherland).
Practice mindfulness: Learning to stay in the present moment will enhance your ability to focus better (Cindy MacDonald).
Always do one thing less than you think you can do (Bernard Mannes Baruch).
Avoid multitasking with complex tasks such as writing, thinking, solving a problem (American Psychological Association).
Dedicate a time slot for every single task, so that you can immerse your whole self into one task at a time. If need be, put on the “Do Not Disturb” sign during your work bursts (Paul Atchley, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kansas).
Learn to say “No” when a new task interferes. In fact, “attentive to a current task demonstrate responsibility”. There are many ways you can let others know that you are on a task and not ready to look at what they need from you until later. (Devora Zack)
The point is to put your whole heart and mind into what you are doing without being distracted for as long as you can. According to a Harvard University study, “the most productive employees change focus relatively few times”, while multitaskers do so roughly 500 times per day.
Between singletasking sessions, allow your eyes to shut for at least 2 minutes and focus on your breathing. This will allow your focus to stay sharp and ready for the next work burst.
Learn to distinguish what information matters more to you based on the task you are handling in the present moment. (Paul Atchley, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kansas)
One commonly-used technique among software development or Agile-minded teams is Pomodoro, a time management method invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980. The technique sets your work into 25-minute hyper-focus bursts using Pomodoro tomato timer (image), with 5-minute breaks in-between for refreshment. Take a 20 ~ 30 minute break after every 4 Pomodoros.
Keep in mind! All emails, Skype/ Facebook/ text messages, phone calls, and any other kinds of interruptions will be switched off. (Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro technique)
6.1 Once applying these tips successfully
You will feel:
- More energized — a great sense of well-being
- Optimistic and a great sense of humor
- Fulfilled and content from the depth of your being
- No longer stressful or under pressure
- Easier to breathe
- More confident in yourself
- Less anxious about what the future holds
- A sense of being alive more than ever
6.2 Axon Active’s monotasking work environment
At Axon Active, we build a working environment of an agile software development company. It’s where everyone is encouraged to avoid multitasking to get more done with less stress by:
- Starting with Scrum Masters, as they set good examples and are role models in monotasking.
- Blocking distractions by switching off Facebook, Twitter, games, entertainment websites, emails, other common modes of team communication, and things that are literally not related to the work in front of them.
- Applying Pomodoro time management technique by dividing their work into bursts with in-between breaks and refreshment.
- Software engineers learning to say “No” when someone approaches them with a task they cannot attend to at the moment.
Overtime, this has proven to bring along long-term well-being, benefits, and values for both our clients and our development team members.
Axon Active’s offshore outsourcing teams work hard and play hard.
In the end, the article has given you the big picture of how detrimental multitasking is for you, your effectiveness at work, and the people around. We hope the unitasking tips for habitual multitaskers provided at the end will inspire you to get on the wagon of monotasking, paving the way for your long-term success.
We are the offshore partner you’re looking for
Ms. Jennifer Tremp, Product Owner of Finform AG (Switzerland), one of our long-term partners, once said:
“The teams we work with in Vietnam apply the Scrum framework which allows us as a team to get feedback very quickly and to learn from it, as a critical factor of improvement. And for our customers, we can show them the software after each iteration and get their feedback. This is the biggest advantage of Agile and Scrum. In a world with requirements changing fast and often, it’s very important that you can respond to those changes in a fast and inexpensive way – and Agile allows you to do that. It might take some time to change the mindset but once you understand what Agile is about, it is very beneficial.
Thanks to the collaboration with Axon Active, we are able to develop our projects in the Fintech industry successfully, an industry that bears a lot of potential and is growing fast.”
Axon Active is a tech firm from Switzerland with years of experience in developing agile software and applications for web and mobile platforms. We are the only organization in Vietnam offering official Scrum Alliance’s Certified ScrumMaster and Certified Scrum Product Owner certifications. The exclusive Scrum and agile coaching sessions have enabled distinguished clients like Soreco and CRIF, among others, to successfully adopt Agile working methodologies and observe major digital transformation over the years.
Looking for a well-versed, reliable offshore software outsourcing partner? Learn more about how to start software development outsourcing and let us know your questions!
8. Resources to learn more about multitasking
8.1 Local training workshops
There is no better way to learn to be an effective monotasker and agile practitioner than joining in events organized locally like Scrum Breakfast Vietnam and DevDay Da Nang; or professional agile coaching sessions like Agile leadership, Fit for Scrum, and Fit for Kanban. With over a decade of practicing agile software development, Axon Active is eager to share what we know with others through training opportunities like these.
Axon Active hosts a Scrum Breakfast Vietnam themed “Great Scrum Master Way” for those aspired to master their skills.
Another Scrum Breakfast Vietnam hosted by Axon Active on Agile leadership
- Singletasking: Get More Done—One Thing at a Time, by Devora Zack
- Scrum: How to do twice the work in half the time, by Jeff Sutherland
- Scrum: an ideal framework for agile projects, by David Morris
- Your Brain At Work, by David Rock
- Stanford Alumni’s How Multitasking Is Affecting the Way You Think with Clifford Nass, re-published on Scrum Inc.’s Multitasking online class
- Muda (wasted effort) – Scrum Inc.
- The Multitasking Name Game – Crisp
- Resource Utilization Trap – Henrik Kniberg
- Focus via Henrik Kniberg – Henrik Kniberg
- How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking – Peter Bregman, Harvard Business Review
9. Try these multitasking games!
9.1 From Lab In the Wild (Harvard University)
Reproduced from Lab In the Wild
Lab In the Wild is a team of Harvard computer scientists. Give this game a try and learn about your multitasking habit: http://multitasking.labinthewild.org/multitasking/
9.2 From Nancy K. Napier Ph.D. (reproduced from Psychology Today’s The Myth of Multitasking article)
9.2.1. Part 1
- Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper
- Now, have someone time you as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
- On the first line, write: I am a great multitasker
- On the second line: write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Record your time down in a piece of paper. Usually it’s about 20 seconds.
9.2.2 Part 2
Now, let’s multitask.
Draw two more horizontal lines. This time, and again have someone time you, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence, changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter “I” and then the number “1” and then the letter “a” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.
How much time did it take you to finish everything? Record your time down in the piece of paper.
Now see the difference in time taken for two different approaches.
- In which approach did you finish the task faster?
- Which one makes you feel more calm and productive?
- Which one makes you feel more confused and stressful?
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2. Amy Vetter. (February 28, 2018). Science Says Monotasking – Not Multitasking – Is the Secret to Getting Things Done. Here Are 8 Ways to Do It. Retrieved from Inc.
3. Cindy MacDonald. (2015). One thing at a time please. Reader’s Digest, 48-55.
4. Cirillo Consulting GmbH. (n.d.). Do more and have fun with time management. Retrieved from Francesco Cirillo – Work smarter, not harder
5. Geoff Watts. (2013). Scrum Mastery: From Good to Great Servant-Leadership. Scrum Mastery Quote Cards. Inspect & Adapt Ltd.
6. Geoffrey James. (August 24, 2018). Sitting Near a Multitasker Decreases Your Intelligence By 17 Percent. Retrieved from Inc.
7. Gráinne Logue. (May 5, 2016). The Myth of Multitasking. Retrieved from Medium.
8. Jeff Sutherland. (2014). Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. New York: Penguin Random House UK.
9. Julien Laloyaux, Frank Laroi, & Marco Hirnstein. (September 26, 2018). Research: Women and Men Are Equally Bad at Multitasking. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review
10. Lab In The Wild. (n.d.). Multitasking Test. Retrieved from Lab In The Wild (Harvard University)
11. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). multitasking. Retrieved from Merriam-Webster
12. Nancy K. Napier Ph.D. (May 12, 2014). The myth of multitasking. Retrieved from Psychology Today
13. Neuropsychotherapist. (n.d.). Prefrontal Cortex. Retrieved from Neuropsychotherapist
14. Paul Atchley. (DecemberR 21, 2010). You Can’t Multitask, So Stop Trying. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review
15. ScienceDaily. (n.d.). Amygdala. Retrieved from ScienceDaily
16. Scrum Inc. (n.d.). Muda. Retrieved from Scrum Inc.
17. Scrum Inc. (n.d.). Multitasking. Retrieved from Scrum Inc.
18. The Standish Group International, Inc. (2010). Modernization: Clearing A Pathway To Success. From The Standish Group International, Inc.