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Multitasking Is a Myth

13 April 2016

Vishal Budhwant
Tech Mahindra

I recently discussed the topic of multitasking at a meet-up of the PlayScrum Pune Agile group. The theme was how multitasking kills productivity and lowers the quality of an individual's work and as well as that of a team. I explained this through one exercise and one game. As a group, we also looked at practical solutions for the problem of the temptations of multitasking. We realized that first we have to accept that multitasking and context switching do hamper our productivity, which motivates us to try to minimize those activities. Here is an overview of the presentation.

One of the many daily practices that exemplifies multitasking is driving and talking on the cell phone. But we also see multitasking in other areas of our lives. For example, in job descriptions, we often see phrases like, "Must be able to balance five projects simultaneously." The ability to juggle seems so attractive.

Driving and talking on the cell phone

The research is very clear on this one: People who drive while talking on their cell phone (even on the hands-free models) get into more accidents than people who do not.

I can read your mind right now: You are thinking that it's only other people who can’t handle both tasks simultaneously. But me, I’m the high-powered executive. The literature is pretty clear on the topic. If you think you’re good at multitasking, you’re actually worse than everyone else. The perception that we have the ability to multitask has been found to be overinflated. David Sanbonmatsu, the lead author of studies on the topic and professor of psychology at the University of Utah, says, "People do not multitask because they are good at it. They do it because they are more distracted. . . . People who multitask the most just cannot focus. . . ." They cannot help themselves. I probably shouldn't say "they," I should say "we." We all do it. It’s hard not to. The key thing to remember is that it’s not a smart thing to do.

The heart of Scrum is rhythm, flow, and zone. We are pattern seekers. However, all patterns that we seek are not rewarding, nor are all optimized to bring us happiness. Negative rhythms of depression and addiction do exist. Scrum and Lean creators have tried to take human patterns and make them positive rather than negative. They have given the day or week a rhythm, which is a virtuous and self-reinforcing cycle.

Value delivery

Let's examine a project in which we have two scenarios for delivering value:

  1. The project has three features: A, B, and C.
  2. The team will take one month to complete one feature.
  3. One feature will deliver x value. The other feature will deliver 2x value.
  4. Team A delivered the project in Serial Delivery mode and Team B in Parallel Delivery mode.
  5. Plot their value delivery against time.
  6. Assume 20 percent overhead for task switching for the second scenario or Parallel Delivery.

Hint: Plot the Serial case first.

Here’s what I want you to do for another example:
  1. Write down these items:
    • Arabic numbers from 1 through 10
    • Roman numerals from 1 through 10 (e.g., I, II, III, . . . , X)
    • Letters A through J
  2. Do each row at a time.
  3. Next, do each column at a time.
  4. Record your times.
Let’s be reasonable. There are multiple demands on our time — the phone is ringing with a really important call, the kids arrive home from school, or the boss walks into our office. What the author, the researcher, and the Agile framework’s inventors want us to do is to be conscious of the cost of context switching. It is very real, and we should try to minimize it.

Minimizing the cost of context switching

If you are working on something complicated — for example, writing a report, creating a presentation, developing a piece of a software, or drafting a book — remember that you are retaining an incredibly complex object in your mind. This is worthy of turning off your phone and putting up a Do Not Disturb sign. The Pomodoro technique can also be useful at such times.

Finally, remember this basic technique: On your task board, put work-in-progress limits in all columns. By doing this, we will definitely restrict context switching of team members and foster collaboration.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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