makers and multitasking

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Paul (Hackers & Painters) Graham has a new essay on how workplace meetings affect various groups of people. "One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they're on a different type of schedule from other people," writes Graham:

There are two types of schedule, which I'll call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it's merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done.

Graham notes that "there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers:"

They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started. When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. [...]

I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there's sometimes a cascading effect. If I know the afternoon is going to be broken up, I'm slightly less likely to start something ambitious in the morning.

To answer the "why can't you geeks just multi-task like everyone else?" question, I'll refer to Charles J. Abaté's article "You Say Multitasking Like It's a Good Thing" from The NEA Higher Education Journal. Abaté deflates three myths of multitasking, the first of which is the claim that multitasking is a time-saving strategy. He notes that, according to the Journal of Experimental Psychology experiments published as "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching" (Rubinstein, et al.), "people who multitask actually prove more inefficient than people who focus on one task at a time" because:

...the interruption of one task requires us to remember where we stopped, so that when we return to this task we can resume the activity. The same is true, of course, for the alternate task(s). [...] ...the time lost while the brain continually reorients itself during the stop-and-go process increases with the complexity and relative unfamiliarity of the tasks, and takes longer when the switching period is extended over a longer time period. In short, multitasking proves less efficient than performing the same tasks one at a time.

As noted in the Rubinstein study, "Task alternation yielded switching-time costs that increased with rule complexity... [...] It appears that rule activation takes more time for switching from familiar to unfamiliar tasks..." In other words, novel and complex tasks suffer more from being part of a multitasking workload--exactly the point that Graham makes in his essay. Attempting to repeatedly switch focus onto and away from a demanding task--by scheduling meetings during the time we're trying to write code, for example--carries a performance penalty.

In trying to do too much, we are actually getting less done.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on August 1, 2009 2:09 PM.

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