Multi-tasking is a Harmful Myth for Developers

“I like to mix it up; a little bit of that and a little bit of this.” Sentiments like this are common to developers – as, let’s face it: some of these tasks are boring. But way back in 1991, the late (1933-2018) Gerald Weinberg – computer scientist, psychology teacher, computer anthropologist, and author – laid out the math that tallied up wasted time due to “project switching.” We’ll spare you the details, but in one of Weinberg’s better-known books, he says it’s 20%. A whopping 20% of your time is lost when you change gears. The slowdown hits as much as 50% if you’re going back and forth between three projects.

Thousands of articles have been written on the “myth of multi-tasking,” explaining how humans aren’t designed to think seriously about more than one thing at a time. But how often do we put “e-distractions” into the category of multi-tasking? Because that’s what they are: commenting on a Facebook post, answering an email, or that “quick” check on Words with Friends. Most of us think we’re better at getting stuff done than we are. We over estimate our own abilities. A favorite example is asking a group of people to raise their hands if they think they’re an “above-average driver.” Usually, about 70% or more of the hands go up – a statistical impossibility. Too many programmers think they can work productively with multiple browser tabs open; but science doesn’t support this.  A BBC report spelled it out quite memorably with the headline “Infomania Worse than Marijuana.”

“The study … found excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence. Those distracted … saw a 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana.”

In short, you’d be better off toking up and working than working while distracted. Computer people know all-too-well how the system works – clickbait, notifications, reminders, etc. They’re all designed to interrupt, disturb, intrude, interfere, obstruct, and hinder you from doing anything other than staying on their page. Nobody wants to work in a repressive work environment with their internet restricted. Bosses know employee confidence and morale go out the window as soon as people believe they’re being treated like a child. This means you’re gonna have to police yourself.

idea list

If you’ve been hearing folks gush about “blocking apps” of late, it’s because many are finding them genuinely them helpful. A noticeable newcomer is BlockSite, a productivity app that’s making waves mostly because of the huge amount of flexibility it allows. All settings are up to you. You can schedule certain times that are more restricted, it’s like being on a Zen Buddhist silent retreat. Or you can allow this but disallow that; the choices are yours. It’s refreshing to be able to sit down and know that for the next 60 minutes, for example, you can’t do anything but work. Free to download, this app also has a function for the famous “timer” technique – race the clock and do X amount of work before the bell rings and you win a break. Adult content can also be added to the block list, which might be a wise idea for those tempted to open a “new private window” when working.

Internet distractions are – for many – are clearly as powerful as an addiction. And, those with addictive personalities often decide to go completely sober as even one dip into their preferred substance leads to total relapse. This may be a good 2021 New Year’s Resolution idea for those fed up with feeling powerless over the wily internet. Reviews of “productivity apps” are overwhelmingly positive and before our overloads begin installing web limits during work hours, why not voluntarily keep yourself in check, and forestall the possibility of draconian measures?

Attaining that near-mythical state of “flow;” where time melts away and suddenly, you’ve written the who darn project – is impossible without laser-like focus. Flow is a billion little things all joined into a stream of creativity. As software wizard and blogger Joel Spolsky put it:

“The trick here is that when you manage programmers, specifically, task switches take a really, really, really long time. That’s because programming is the kind of task where you have to keep a lot of things in your head at once. The more things you remember at once, the more productive you are at programming. A programmer coding at full throttle is keeping zillions of things in their head at once: everything from names of variables, data structures, important APIs, the names of utility functions that they wrote and, even the name of the subdirectory where they store their source code. If you send that programmer to Crete for a three-week vacation, they will forget it all. The human brain seems to move it out of short-term RAM and swaps it out onto a backup tape where it takes forever to retrieve.”

Internet distractions are the equivalent of mini vacations, which rob you of your memory. You don’t have time for mini vacations. So, block what’s blocking you.