For at least 10 years, the world has increasingly emphasized advanced, digital technologies that bring with them limitless comfort and make 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 many jobs they can juggle in unison. Multitasking has mistakenly become a requirement to size someone up for, or a golden standard to judge their value and effectiveness against, a job. The people who spend a lot of time on one thing are not rewarded.
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 makes you stupid”
It is a fact that those who multitask have to pay the 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 wake-up call for software developers, especially those practicing Agile, to go against the trend so ingrained in today’s business conduct.
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, single-tasking (mono-tasking, or unitasking) is the performance of one task at a time.
2. Reasons underlying multitasking habit
One can say that the increasingly technology-dependent, fast-paced society demands people to multitask. Indeed, people constantly pay attention to (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 are still addicted to the feeling of being always-on and crave for more. It is because it makes them feel emotionally-fulfilled and comfortable.
Speaking of this, Cognitive Psychology professor Paul Atchley at the University of Kansas and Assistant Professor of Communication Dr. Zheng Wang at the Ohio State University said the human brain is not designed to process multiple initiatives all at once. Multitasking is against the natural way the human brain works and 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, people who think long-term don’t multitask.
3. Characteristics of a typical multitasker
Many studies are 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
Easily influenced or 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
4. Multitasking across gender and age
Women and young people are often stereotyped to outperform men and elders in multitasking, respectively.
However, a CNN report shows much evidence indicating equally-low performances among both male and female multitaskers. Another piece of research reported by Devora Zack (2015) also points to similar harmful consequences multitasking has across the age spectrum – from elementary school to seniors.
As a result, multitasking does more harm than good – no matter gender and age.
The multitasking brain
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 continuously 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, costs the brain some time to run the whole process, and causes 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.”
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 suffered 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 the human brain on 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. What we learn
Multitasking is a misleading delusion for “productivity” on the surface that secretly “eats up” people’s ability to handle a job effectively and deliver desired performance.
Multitasking takes its toll on personal life & well-being
1. Lower productivity and creativity
From science’s point of view
Two research conducted between 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.
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 about zero chance to finish any task at all, don’t you think?
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).
3. Lower IQ
Not only does multitasking cost the brain energy and time to function, but it also diminishes grey matter in the brain. In studies conducted by the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London and 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 detail, multitasking habit stresses the brain out, resulting in peaks of cortisol (aka the 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. That’s why Jeff Sutherland said “multitasking is wasteful. Don’t do it!”.
Because of these reasons, Axon Active encourages our software engineers and all staff members to practice single-tasking in order to avoid burnout and achieve more for the growth of our own and our long-term clients.
Multitasking takes its toll on work performance
1. Multitasking creates wastes 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 where wastes are created.
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.”
What we learn
In a lesson about multitasking, Jeff Sutherland said that it’s important a Scrum Master learns to make sure members of their software development team are kept from distractions that 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 pressured to do more by the management.
2. Multitasking weighs down team performance and team spirit
Optimistic findings of single-tasking
The narrow focus on productivity and the multitasking culture are truly ineffective in bringing significant changes to software development team’s performance. Meanwhile, single-tasking is beneficial for software developers in various ways. It allows the team to:
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 a 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
The ideal work environment for software development teams
Jeff Sutherland encourages leaders, particularly in software development industry, to create an environment that:
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.
Axon Active’s single-tasking 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 single-tasking.
Blocking distractions by switching off Facebook, Youtube, 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 refreshments.
Learning to say “No” when someone approaches them with a task they cannot attend to at the moment.
Over time, this has proven to bring along long-term well-being, benefits, and values for both our clients and our development team members.
Our 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 single-tasking. Follows are some of their tips to help us stop this destructive habit.
>>> Please scroll down to see the key takeaways infographic.
1. Remind yourself always
KEEP IN MIND that “multitasking makes you stupid” (Jeff Sutherland).
Although you may be forgetful at times, trying to alert yourself constantly with this reminder will allow you to get your head in the “game” of single-tasking easier.
2. Practice mindfulness & meditation regularly
PRACTICE mindfulness will enhance your ability to focus better (Cindy MacDonald).
“Mindfulness is the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment, which one can develop through the practice of meditation and through other training.”
Practicing meditation at work is simple! Between single-tasking sessions, shut your eyes for 2 minutes and focus on your breathing. This will allow your focus to stay sharp and ready for the next work burst.
3. Remember “Less is more”
ALWAYS do one thing less than you think you can do (Bernard Mannes Baruch) and AVOID multitasking at all costs, especially with complex tasks such as writing, thinking, solving a problem (American Psychological Association).
4. Learn to say “No”
SAY “NO” when a new task interferes and distinguish what matters more to you at the moment. (Paul Atchley, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Kansas).
In fact, “attentive to a current task demonstrate responsibility” (Devora Zack).
5. Practice long focus
PUT your whole heart and mind into what you are doing without being distracted for as long as you can. If need be, put on “Do Not Disturb” sign during your work bursts.
According to a Harvard University study, “the most productive employees change focus relatively few times”, while multitaskers do so roughly 500 times per day.
6. Use Pomodoro
POMODORO is a time management method invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s.
The technique sets your work into 25-minute hyper-focus bursts using tomato timer, with 5-minute breaks in-between for refreshment. Take a 20 ~ 30-minute break after every 4 Pomodoros.
All emails, social networks, text messages, phone calls, and any other kinds of interruptions will be switched off (Francesco Cirillo’s Pomodoro technique).
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
Resources to learn more about multitasking
1. Local training workshops
There is no better way to learn to be an effective single-tasker 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.
Single-tasking: 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
Try these multitasking games!
1. From Lab In the Wild (Harvard University)
2. From Nancy K. Napier Ph.D. (reproduced from Psychology Today’s The Myth of Multitasking)
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.
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.
Time to see the difference between the two 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 stressed?
Below are some handy tips for you!
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 you. We hope the unitasking tips for habitual multitaskers provided at the end will inspire you to get on the wagon of single-tasking, paving the way for your long-term success.
American Psychological Association. (March 20, 2006). Multitasking: Switching costs. Retrieved from American Psychological Association
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.
Cindy MacDonald. (2015). One thing at a time please. Reader’s Digest, 48-55.
Cirillo Consulting GmbH. (n.d.). Do more and have fun with time management. Retrieved from Francesco Cirillo – Work smarter, not harder
Dr. Sanjay Gupta (2016). Your brain on multitasking. CNN Health.
Geoff Watts. (2013). Scrum Mastery: From Good to Great Servant-Leadership. Scrum Mastery Quote Cards. Inspect & Adapt Ltd.
Geoffrey James. (August 24, 2018). Sitting Near a Multitasker Decreases Your Intelligence By 17 Percent. Retrieved from Inc.
Gráinne Logue. (May 5, 2016). The Myth of Multitasking. Retrieved from Medium.
Jeff Sutherland. (2014). Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. New York: Penguin Random House UK.
Julien Laloyaux, Frank Laroi, & Marco Hirnstein. (September 26, 2018). Research: Women and Men Are Equally Bad at Multitasking. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review
Lab In The Wild. (n.d.). Multitasking Test. Retrieved from Lab In The Wild (Harvard University)
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). multitasking. Retrieved from Merriam-Webster
Nancy K. Napier Ph.D. (May 12, 2014). The myth of multitasking. Retrieved from Psychology Today
Neuropsychotherapist. (n.d.). Prefrontal Cortex. Retrieved from Neuropsychotherapist
Paul Atchley. (December 21, 2010). You Can’t Multitask, So Stop Trying. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review
ScienceDaily. (n.d.). Amygdala. Retrieved from ScienceDaily
Scrum Inc. (n.d.). Muda. Retrieved from Scrum Inc.
Scrum Inc. (n.d.). Multitasking. Retrieved from Scrum Inc.
The Standish Group International, Inc. (2010). Modernization: Clearing A Pathway To Success. From The Standish Group International, Inc.
AJ Willingham. (2019) Women aren’t better at multitasking after all, study says. Retrieved from CNN.
Yang Liu. (2016) Today meets yesterday. TASCHEN GmbH