Multitasking (Message from the CTO, newsletter 49)

20 June 2011

For one reason or another, Jeff and I ran out of pre-videoed messages this time, so this one is “text only”.


It’s been such a long time that we’ve been using PCs that multitask well that we don’t even think about it any more. It’s still magic in a sense: the OS will halt a process, save its state perfectly, swap in another process, restore its state, and kick it off. A couple of milliseconds later, another process is running as if it had never been stopped. 100 processes in my Task Manager? Yawn, shhh, pass the popcorn, I’m watching a movie on my PC.

Microwave Timerphoto © 2009 Pascal | more info (via: Wylio)But there is one place where multitasking is not so smooth and automatic and causes problems every time it happens: our own concentration. Just like our PCs, every time we have to multitask (our boss phones us as we’re trying ever so hard to debug something intricate) we have to save our state somehow. If you’re anything like me, it’s not a case of “oh, hang on, let me write down where I was, what theory I was testing, the results so far that have validated my theory”, it’s more a case of hoping your memory can remember all that and “yeah, I can pop round to your office; this’ll wait.” Of course there are other interrupts we must process: the appointment warning from Outlook about that meeting, the “toast” window popping up telling us that we have a new email or that a colleague has logged into the IM app.

Our state-saving expertise is woeful. Which is why, when we have to context-switch, it takes us so long to get back up to speed. I think the generally accepted and quoted figure is that it takes us 15 minutes to get back into the groove. So what can we do to reduce context switches and make our multitasking run smoother? Obviously, there’s not a lot we can do about the “boss interrupts”, but we can mitigate them somewhat.

The obvious one that everyone recommends is to turn off all interrupts: close down Outlook, your IM app, Tweetdeck, anything that “toasts” you or that intrudes on your work. Sure, we do that anyway.

An equally important one is this: subdivide and break up your work into, say, 50 minute slots. This has several benefits: it allows you to attack various tasks throughout the day (we’re lucky indeed if we only have one task to do: most of us have meetings to attend, customer emails to reply to, code to design and write, presentations to give, and so on, tasks upon tasks) and give a feeling of progress in many of them, reducing that feeling of being overwhelmed. Timeboxing yourself like this also gives you a break at the end of the slot to reflect on what you’ve done, assess your progress, save some state by writing down some conclusions, etc. You’re never doing so much that you have several hours of progress to remember on an interruption. This is the basis of the Pomodoro Technique.

Take it from me: stop multitasking. Do some async processing, not parallel.

Hmm. Now I’ve written it and published it, it sounds like it comes from the heart. Learn from me!

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