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How Multitasking Decreases Efficiency

Let’s go back to that restaurant. Say you and I are having a nice conversation (yes, we put away our phones) when the server walks up to take our orders. We spend a couple of minutes talking with her, looking over the menu, and making our selections. When she heads back to the kitchen, we look at each other, and what’s the first thing we say? “What were we talking about?” It takes maybe 30 seconds to a minute to get back to our previous conversation. Or we might never get there, because we can’t remember what we were talking about just a few minutes earlier!

That little bit of time, the 30–60 seconds needed to recall our previous conversation, is wasted time. Had we not been distracted during our conversation, we wouldn’t have needed to spend time getting back to it. With this fact in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that multitasking negatively affects productivity; think of the time we needed to reacquaint ourselves with a previously started but incomplete task.

As a consultant, I spend a lot of time educating teams who are just starting down the agile path. When I first started teaching classes years ago, it was quite common for people to be sitting in class with their laptops open, typing away. When I asked what they were doing, they responded with answers along these lines: “I’m trying to finish my code before the end of the day,” or “My manager is pinging me about progress on a customer issue.” Not surprisingly, these same people would inevitably ask questions about something that I had covered already. Clearly they weren’t paying attention to both the laptop and the class. With the ubiquitous smartphone, this situation has gotten even worse.

After a while, I made it a policy to ask those people to leave the class. If what they were doing was so important that they had to do it in the middle of a class, then they needed to leave the class and focus exclusively on the higher-priority task. Removing those people also had the positive side-effect of minimizing distractions for the rest of the attendees. I finally made it a point to start each class with a “no laptops open” rule. If any attendees didn’t think the class was as important as their other activities, I simply asked that they leave.

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