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Don’t Overdo The Multi-tasking

Posted in: Organization and Productivity
Don't Overdo The Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking used to be my favourite way to get ahead.

During my PhD I saw others around me working extremely long hours in the lab and not really having much of a personal life and quite early on I made the decision that this was not for me.

Although I enjoy my work, having a good life outside the is also very important. Also, I found that if I worked very long hours then I tended to be far less efficient overall.

But, I still wanted to get through as many experiments as possible. So I also made the decision that my approach would be to work a regular 8 hour day and be as efficient as possible during that time. My basic recipe for an efficient working day was:

1. Good time planning

2. Multi-tasking

3. Efficient and accurate record keeping

4. Short breaks (!)

Most of this worked quite well, but in retrospect the multi-tasking part was not a good idea, at least to the extent I took it to.

My aim in multi-tasking was to fill every part of the working day with something useful. So I would normally have several experiments going on at once and flit between them in a packed schedule. Gaps in the schedule were filled with the other necessaries: writing up, reading, making solutions.

I definitely got through a lot of experiments that way. But that was the only good thing that such a packed schedule delivered.

Multi-tasking with few gaps in the day made me stressed, error-prone and took the enjoyment out of the job. That’s not surprising looking at it now, but at the time I thought it was the best way to work.

A quick Google search on multi-tasking brings up a whole host of articles highlighting the inefficiency of multi-tasking (see here, for example – both contain links to other useful articles including primary literature). Apparently the brain takes a certain amount of time to switch between tasks, so constant switching means constantly losing time and train-of-thought.

These days I still multi-task – although your brain is not designed for it, there’s no way around it. But I pay close attention to the number of tasks I am juggling. Where possible I perform only one or two experiments in parallel, and guess what? I have a much higher rate of success, and much less stress than before.

What do you think of multi-tasking?

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  1. Lau on July 2, 2009 at 8:16 am

    multi-tasking is unavoidable most of the time, i usually multi-task according to job’s nature, with one heavy task (e.g. experiment, report etc) and the rest light and easy (prepare buffers, autoclave, google, facebook or even bitesize bio etc).

    i usually avoid 2 experiments at the same time, repeating an experiment is more frustrating then staying longer hour for me.

  2. Fulvio on July 1, 2009 at 8:46 am

    I usually multi-tasks..but not more than 2 experiment..and I use short break for “clean my mind” (sig break)..I think depend on the experiment..If I do imaging I do not multi-task, but doing molecular biology it’s easier (blot and pcr)…

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