Multitasking is bad. We know that. Sort of. Yet still, we keep fooling ourselves that we can do efficiently a few things at the same time.
When I talk about limiting work in progress I point a number of reasons why multitasking and its outcome – context switching – is harmful. One of them is Zeigarnik Effect.
Zeigarnik Effect is an observation that our brains remember much better tasks that we haven’t finished. Not only that though. If we haven’t finished something we will also have intrusive thoughts about that thing.
So it’s not only that it’s easy for us to recall tasks that we haven’t finished. We don’t necessarily control that we occasionally think about these tasks either.
What are the consequences? Probably the most important outcome is that, in a situation where we handle a lot of work in progress, it is an illusion that we are focusing on a single task. This is an argument that I’d frequently hear: it doesn’t matter that we have a dozen work items in development. After all, at any given time I only work on a single feature, right?
Wrong. What Zeigarnik Effect suggests is that our brains will be switching context despite what we consciously think it would do.
An interesting perspective to that discussion is that Zeiganik effect has been disputed – it isn’t universally accepted phenomenon. Let me run a quick validation with you then. When was the last time that, while doing something completely different, you’ve had an intrusive thought about an unfinished task. Be it an email you forgot to send, a call you didn’t make, a chore you was supposed to do or whatever else.
We do have those out of the blue thoughts, don’t we? Now, think what happens when we do. Our brain instantly switches the context. It doesn’t really matter what we’ve been doing prior to that: driving a car, coding or having a discussion.
That’s exactly where the multitasking tax is rooted.
It’s not all bad though. We frequently use Zeigarnik Effect to help us. A canonical example is when we struggle with solving a complex issue, we give up, just to figure it all out when we take shower, brush our teeth or just lay in bed after we’ve woken up in the morning. We simply release the pressure of sorting it all out instantly and let our brain take care of that.
And it does. On a moment that’s convenient for our thinking process we face a context switch that brings us to a solution of a puzzle that we’ve been facing.
It is worth to remember that it’s a case of context switching as well. It just so happens that we’ve been taking a shower thus it doesn’t hit our productivity. The pattern in both cases is exactly the same though.
That’s why it is worth remembering that adding more and more things to our plate doesn’t make us effective at all. At the same time we may use exactly the same mechanism to let our brain casually kick in when we struggle with solving a difficult problem.