The Sirensong of Multitasking in the Remote Era

3 minute read


Likely we have all read articles about how “true” multitasking is impossible – all we really can do is switch rapidly between multiple tasks. Just in the past month, there have been several articles about how this is the case, how it lowers our overall work efficiency, and how everyone is doing it anyway.

(One BBC article puts forward the arguably contrarian take that it could be a good thing because it stimulates creativity or something, but let’s set that aside as an outlier and roll with the assertion that most of the time, multitasking is bad.)

Here’s the thing. As plenty of these articles point out, everything being on Zoom makes it so. damn. tempting. Especially if everyone’s cameras are off anyway, or it’s a webinar. Especially if the discussion is not particularly interesting or engaging. Especially if the to-do list is intimidatingly long. It’s absolutely tantalizing to just cruise through some emails or other minor chores. And probably sometimes that’s fine. (We all have things that we feel some obligation to be “present” at, but don’t get much from.)

But lately, I’ve realized that it’s actually been a long time since I gave my full attention to the entire duration of a webinar, conference talk, or even just large meeting that I wasn’t actively leading or participating in, and that strikes me as a problem. After all, in an in-person department seminar, I’m very rarely if ever on my laptop or otherwise trying to do anything other than listen to the speaker. And sometimes, it could be a talk that I would’ve been really interested in, but because I let myself be distracted at the beginning, I lost the thread.

So in the name of personal accountability, but also because I suspect I’m not the only one experiencing this, I’m going to posit some relatively specific measures that might help start to address this, mainly by reducing the temptation to turn my attention to other things. Some of them I already do somewhat regularly. Some are things I’d like to start doing, or start doing more of. Anyway, here goes.

  1. Do things in fullscreen mode when possible. I already do this as a matter of course for tasks on which I can’t make any progress without undivided attention (coding, debugging, writing, etc.). I’d like to start doing it more for things like Zoom meetings, and maybe even temporarily turn off extra monitors that are only serving as distractions during those times.

  2. Mitigate others’ expectations. For example, set a Slack status as “away” during meetings/talks and maybe even mute notifications to reduce the temptation to respond to messages that come in.

  3. Take actual breaks. This one I’m actually alright at. When I feel my focus waning, I step away from my desk and go for a walk, make some tea, do some yoga, work out, or otherwise disconnect briefly. I do often succumb to the temptation to continue answering Slack messages or emails that come in during breaks, so I could probably do to incorporate the wisdom of #2 above into my practice of this.

I genuinely believe that not only will these things make me a happier and healthier person, but through doing so, will increase me efficiency and productivity, because without the mental overhead of constantly switching my attention, I can put in more hours of quality work in any given day.

Maybe you want to join me?

(Full disclosure: This post was written while I was “at” a poster session for a conference. But nobody came to see the poster during that time…)