Multi tasking for software engineers, good or evil?

Alright, we are not talking about Operating System's Multi Tasking here! It is about you as a multi tasker and your view on it.

Some says, multi tasking in general increases productivity. There are alternate views that, multi tasking actually slow us down at a long run.

What do you think? Do you multi task? How is it going for you? Are there some examples you can share with us?

I shall start with mine:

After a long time, I understood the meaning of multi-tasking as,

Doing two or more things at once expecting positive outcomes from all without switching between the tasks too much!

giphy.gif From Gify

With this, I do not see myself a good achiever of multi tasking yet. I end up switching between tasks and eventually if the switches are too many, I feel anxious about it and it is mentally taxing.

I could find ways to collate few related tasks together so that, I do not have to switch many times and that helps to some extent. But, it is not a true multi-tasking though.

Some of the cases, I can do multi tasking effectively are:

  • Listening to music while exercising in the morning.
  • Listening to audio podcast when I used to drive to office before Covid locked me in.
  • Taking notes(or doing something) while a big file is getting downloaded that I am waiting on.

Let us know, if you can multi-task things effectively and how is it helping you out personally and professionally. Let us also hear, if it is not working out right.

j's photo

Human Multitasking to me, only works if the tasks are not complex and don't need complex analysis but mainly execution.

I can fold my laundry and talk basically. I can write a simple HTML form and switch between an email and talking to a colleague. These are things that I trained a lot there is no learning involved just acting on a subconscious level.

Any multitasking within a creative process that is not already broken down to smaller pieces that have well defined boundaries seams counterproductive to me.

that's my experience.

Tapas Adhikary's photo

☝ UI/UX Enthusiast | 💻 Work @MicroFocus | ✍️ Blogger | 👨‍🏫 Mentor | 🎤 Speaker | 🍟 Foodie

multitasking within a creative process that is not already broken down to smaller pieces that have well defined boundaries seams counterproductive to me.

Very well said, j!

Syed Fazle Rahman's photo

To be honest, I am very bad at multitasking. I always end up switching the tasks. Complete one peacefully, do the justice to the work and then move on.

I think most of the time, people would expect you to finish n number of tasks within a certain time period. The best thing to do in such cases would be to divide your time by n and then proceed.

This would give you an idea whether it’s possible to finish all the n tasks in x time.

Tapas Adhikary's photo

☝ UI/UX Enthusiast | 💻 Work @MicroFocus | ✍️ Blogger | 👨‍🏫 Mentor | 🎤 Speaker | 🍟 Foodie

Syed Fazle Rahman,

This would give you an idea whether it’s possible to finish all the n tasks in x time.

Sounds like a great approach!

Sébastien Portebois's photo

Multitasking is popular because it gives the impression of being more productive (or at least busier!)

But science tells us it’s not true. The attention span of an average human is usually in the 5 to 7 chunks. And then there’s all the context. The more you multi task, the more context you have to re-load.

One efficient way of doing kind-of multi-tasking, is to use all the parts of your brain efficiently: you focus on a problem/task for some time, and when you’re stuck, then you switch to something else (again, for a minimum amount of time). Your conscious focus will switch from one task to another, but your brain will keep thinking about the other task, so that when you come back to it, you might make quick progress.

That’s part of the mechanics at work when people use the Pomodoro technique.

If you are not familiar with how your brain thinks and how the conscious vs unconscious thinking process work in parallel, a great introduction is this talk by Linda Rising:

When people are "successful" multi tasking, usually it’s because only one task really requires a full focus, and the other(s) one(s) can be automated and does not require any active thinking. Otherwise, the focus and the cognitive load is split and indeed, either the tasks are really simple, or they aren’t performed as well as they could.

As soon as a task requires some focus and concentration, your brain needs to be fully engaged.

The sooner a developer learns this, the sooner he improves on complex tasks.

Thankfully many tasks are dull and don’t require a full attention ;)

Tapas Adhikary's photo

☝ UI/UX Enthusiast | 💻 Work @MicroFocus | ✍️ Blogger | 👨‍🏫 Mentor | 🎤 Speaker | 🍟 Foodie

Sébastien Portebois,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Linda Rising's talk was just amazing.

One efficient way of doing kind-of multi-tasking, is to use all the parts of your brain efficiently: you focus on a problem/task for some time, and when you’re stuck, then you switch to something else (again, for a minimum amount of time).

Great Suggestion, Thanks!

Victoria Lo's photo

Back when I was in school, I am a multitasking monster. I play games while eating and talking, I work on assignments while watching Netflix (I don't know how I did that) and my favourite multitasking activity:

Reading while listening to music, talking with my friends and eating all the same time.

But then I took a course on psychology and my professor told me that multitasking is not efficient and results are often less productive. In terms of cognitive functions, it reduces social awareness and memory retention since your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. In short, multitasking leads to breadth instead of depth activities. Since then, I started to reduce multitasking.

I found that I can focus for longer periods, work on assignments more efficiently and pay more attention to detail in my work and surroundings. The highest level of multitasking I do now is probably just listening to music while working. In conclusion, I'd say yes multitasking is evil, especially for software engineers who often has to focus and work efficiently for a long time.

Tapas Adhikary's photo

☝ UI/UX Enthusiast | 💻 Work @MicroFocus | ✍️ Blogger | 👨‍🏫 Mentor | 🎤 Speaker | 🍟 Foodie

Victoria Lo,

In terms of cognitive functions, it reduces social awareness and memory retention since your brain can only focus on one thing at a time. In short, multitasking leads to breadth instead of depth activities. Since then, I started to reduce multitasking.

Thanks for sharing. Completely agree as I could realize that in practice. It would be great to know more about the course you mentioned.

Victoria Lo's photo

A nerd in books, tea, games and software.

Tapas Adhikary Sure, it's called Managing Work and Teams. It was an experimental course for my cohort that covers group psychology, work/goal planning, productivity and motivation, etc. I probably forgot 60% of what I learn. Too much theory memorizing haha!

Oliver Earl's photo

Personally I can't multitask very well, but this is because I'm easily distracted. So if I'm working on something, I'll complete tasks sequentially. If I have deadlines, I'm most definitely closing out any unnecessary distractions like social media, YouTube, etc. I personally can't even listen to podcasts or audiobooks whilst working because they inhibit my ability to get into a flow state and to concentrate on what I'm doing - music is fine.

If you get blocked by something, or if something else requires your attention, it's okay to stop what you're doing and come back to it later. That's still not multitasking - it's just using your time wisely and not procrastinating.

Seriously though, you don't need to multitask at all, or improve at it. The only important thing is that you're efficient with your time and above all, get things done.

Tapas Adhikary's photo

☝ UI/UX Enthusiast | 💻 Work @MicroFocus | ✍️ Blogger | 👨‍🏫 Mentor | 🎤 Speaker | 🍟 Foodie

Oliver Earl,

Seriously though, you don't need to multitask at all, or improve at it. The only important thing is that you're efficient with your time and above all, get things done.

I think, I am learning this gradually! Thank you very much for putting your thoughts here.

Chigbogu Orji's photo

I can only multitask if it doesn't require much exertion. Else, I do one thing so well and then move to the other.

The Home of Web Automation's photo

Certainly situational but I will share some of my experience and it regards the concept of "Seniority" of an engineer.

When having a goal --> Multi-tasking can be bad

In most cases, you will be tasked with something specific that you need to complete.

As humans, are brains are drawn to distractions like bees to honey. What happens then is you deviate from you single goal of the day/week/month and the actual output you have is effectively decreased. That also goes for the quality of your work.

As a Senior --> Multi-tasking is probably required

Seniority as I have experienced it being the most effective, except for the excellent technical competency, entails the concept of "being able to enable" as many people as possible. Either that be:

  • Solving an issue between Dev & QA
  • Getting new ideas into the table (Technical or Product-oriented)
  • Enabling Marketing doing their job X times faster by teaching/showing them some automation capabilities etc.

Times and times again this might come into people as "Imposter Syndrome", because they are successful in their job, by just being there, enabling and giving their technical edge. Nothing more, which is great!

Arpendu Kumar Garai's photo

Well, I can say from my personal experience that multi-tasking up to some level and within a distinctive box benefits you to grow and learn new things. In other words, it can be called as "slow-motion Multitasking".

Ted Talk

I personally force myself to learn and try out multiple things in a day and when you can cluster them into multiple boxes and proceed, it proves out to be useful enough.

Rana Emad's photo

I can't speak for everyone, but for me it is evil. A necessary evil, though. I wish I lived in a world where I can give this one task my undivided attention, complete it fast enough and move on to the next one, but that's not the case.

As a Software Engineer, even multitasking on a very small scale troubles me, but I end up working on that code while replying to my slack messages and checking open tickets that has been assigned to me or reading that article about this new framework, as I attend that Zoom meeting and fill out the registration form to attend this upcoming talk. I believe it slows me down and exhausts me, but I have to keep up. Sadly, time is not always on our side. You not only have to keep your deadlines in my mind, but others, as well. There is always that urgent reply that is needed and that application closing date you don't want to pass and that launch you don't want to mess up. We are always running from a monster we can't see and I don't think any amount of time would ever be enough.

Even in my personal life, I would be leaving the chicken cooking on the stove, while I am checking on my grandma on the phone, as I fold the laundry, because no matter what, I only have 24 hours. It's inevitable!

Project management tools are really of great help to me, though, on both the professional and the personal level. Every week, I sit and write everything down. I start planning what I need to do and prioritize what absolutely needs to be done and what can be pushed for a later time, in case something came up and just go from there crossing my fingers and hoping for the best.

Tapas Adhikary's photo

☝ UI/UX Enthusiast | 💻 Work @MicroFocus | ✍️ Blogger | 👨‍🏫 Mentor | 🎤 Speaker | 🍟 Foodie

I believe it slows me down and exhausts me, but I have to keep up. Sadly, time is not always on our side.

Thanks for sharing, Rana Emad!