Illusion of Multitasking

I am sitting in a meeting with multiple teams, some people are on the conference call, others are in the room. Some of the people in the room have a reason to be there and some don’t. They showed up because the project manager invited them to attend.

One of the guys realizes that he has no contribution for the one hour meeting and gets up to leave. The PM encourages him to “Feel free to dial in the conference call from your desk and multitask.”

A few days later, another meeting, same PM, same story. I hear the PM say again: “Please feel free to dial in from your desk and multitask”

I don’t know about you, but I do not see a good ending here. You won’t be doing a good job (not even a decent one) at whatever you are doing at your desk, and you could actually make a fool of yourself in the meeting.

What I envision happening here, you go to your desk start working on a task, while listening in on the conference call. Once immersed in your task, there is no way that you could actually pay attention to the meeting as well.
You hear your name mentioned on the phone, followed by a question mark, such as “Blah blah blah…, Diana?”

You jump up in your seat, start feeling embarrassed, having no clue as to what was asked of you, and the context of the question.
Apologetically, you ask the audience to repeat the question, and the context. This is the time when you need to focus your mind from your task, to the meeting, and pull yourself together to give a decent answer.

What a waste of time and mental energy.

I Do Not Like Multitasking.

When I hear people asking me to multitask, I do remind them that I don’t actually multitask. Keep reading, to find out:

Do DBAs multitask?
Are context switches good for you?
How do you “cure” yourself from multitasking?

Do DBAs multitask?

No.

They THINK they do.

They have the ILLUSION of multitasking.

Recently I read a book, called The Happiness Equation, written by Neil Pasricha. Totally worth reading it.

The author talks about the illusion of multitasking. He goes back to the origin of the word multitasking, to 1965, to a paper written by IBM, which defined multitasking as

“The ability of a microprocessor to apparently process several tasks simultaneously”

I hope you caught the key word here, which is “apparently”.

This means that even computers (well, single core processors) don’t multitask. Tasks time-share the processor, and only one task is active at a single time. However the tasks are rotated several times within a second. Thus you get the illusion of multitasking.

Think about your brain, it is a single core processor. There is no human (that I know of) that has a dual core brain. Basically you can only do one thing at a time at any given time.

Working with the example from the beginning of this post, you either are working on your task at your desk, or you are in the meeting.
When you have the illusion of multitasking, you are actually taking small breaks from working on your task, to pay attention to the meeting, or your are taking small breaks from the meeting, to work on your task.

But you are not doing both at the same time.

These breaks are called context switches.

Are context switches good for you?

I can only speak from my experience, I find them exhausting and very annoying, especially when immersed in a task.

During context switches, you are prone to make mistakes, forget things, miss steps, run the wrong steps.

The illusion of multitasking is very common in the IT world, not only for DBAs.

Let me give you an example. You work on database refresh. You start the export of the source database. You know this part is not instantaneous, thus you switch context to documentation. Meanwhile, you get an email from a user that needs help.
You respond to the email. All of a sudden you remember the database refresh, return to that screen continue on with the refresh. The user responds to your email. You click on it read it, decide to deal with it later. Now…”Where were I?”, you are wondering. You need some time to get back to either the refresh or your documentation. This is where time is lost, this is where mistakes are made.

Am I guilty of the illusion of multitasking?

Of course I am, all of us are to a certain extent.

How do you “cure” yourself from multitasking?

I don’t think you can 100%.

For important things such as project work that requires undivided attention, tuning work, deployments, you need to eliminate completely multitasking, no exceptions. Your undivided attention should be at the task at hand.

“But emails are still coming in, phones are still ringing and people are still coming to my desk”, I hear you saying.

It is up to you to set limits:

  • have “Do Not Disturb signs”
  • do not check email right away
  • do not answer the phone
  • as for the walk-ins, excuse yourself and ask them to either see you later, or send you an email

For things that are not so demanding, you will just continue the illusion of multitasking. Sometimes there is no other way. Working on tickets, answering emails and phone calls, all at the same time (or so you think).

Do you think you can multitask? Let me know in the comments section!

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–Diana


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