Is the value of multi-tasking a myth?

- by Roxanne Rustand

I attended an excellent writer’s retreat this year, and one of the topics–time management–really hit home.  Time management is not an easy skill for a lot of writers–especially for me, with the Internet just a click away and e-mail, eBay, Craig’s List and YouTube beckoning so seductively.

Being a little jaded about the whole topic of time management–as these principles always sound good to me in theory, but are ever so hard to stick with beyond a single day, I wasn’t expecting to gain much useful information.  But the presenter was wonderful and I have now turned over a new leaf. :)  Here are several of the principles she covered:

Do important things–not the urgent things–first.  Example: how many of us actually do get on our treadmills or go for thirty minutes of brisk walking per day?  Americans are a sedentary lot.  Exercise is critically important for good health.  But it’s something all too easy to put off…day after day.

Use the military’s philosophy of “hurry up and wait.”  If you have an hour and need to take care of a task requiring thirty minutes, how many of us procrastinate until the last minute?  Do it first–and you’ll feel far less stress, guilt and panic.  Apply this to the bigger projects in life, such as book deadlines, and it can free you up for all sorts of other opportunities that might come along.

Set a timer for productive work time.  Turn off e-mail. The telephone isn’t your boss–don’t feel obligated to answer it.  Anyone with important reasons to call will leave a message or call back.  Set quotas for your tasks–whether its writing pages or cleaning your house, and think of meeting that quota as a way to earn permission to have fun later, rather than making it a guilty pleasure.  This is actually something I’ve done, in part, for some time–I downloaded  Mac Freedom and can turn off all access to the Internet for any length of time I select up to 480 minutes.  It’s wonderful!

The speaker also talked about the myth of multi-tasking–how trying to focus on too many things at once can make it impossible to do well at any of them.  In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice:   “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time. This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”

I would absolutely love to hear your own thoughts about time management and productivity–and what tips you might have!

Roxanne Rustand

The All Creatures great and Small Place


  1. I’ve just checked out Mac Freedom suggested in your post. It is so scary to let your own computer stop you from using it ; ) I have my iMac but I also have my iPhone. I’ll need a box with a lock, within a box with another lock for the iPhone.

    You’re right Time Management sounds so good and it’s like a New Year resolution; you try it but it never lasts.

    Totally agree about doing the ‘important’ things first eg exercise. It’s never urgent until your body hurts. And as a writer, your health is more important because no one can replace you.

    I have problems sleeping so routines are great until my sleeping clock goes out of whack. But in general routines are good.

    Thanks for the post Roxanne.

  2. Thanks so much for your post! LOL on the iPhone too….that would be an ongoing temptation. :)

    Mac Freedom has really helped me. When a page of a manuscript just isn’t working, it so easy to slide away to do something fun. I look for horses for sale on Craigslist…deals on vintage Coach bags on eBay…the weather Doppler page…. So shutting everything off is a great help. AND the program won’t let me turn the computer off/on so I can circumvent the system, either! :)

  3. Roxanne, I definitely agree about the dissiptation of productivity which comes with multi-tasking. I am a one-thing-at-a-time kind of person, and if I attempt to multi-task, I wind up with multiple started-but-not-finished things going on, rather than getting things completed. Because multi-tasking is to lauded in modern American society (we even have “multi-task” CHAIRS, for chrissake!), I used to think there was something WRONG with me, that I was such a one-thing-at-a-timer person…

    But after working with various people who define themselves as “multi-taskers,” I realized that, in fact, there’s something wrong with the theory, rather than with me. Although I’m sure there are people who are exceptions to my own observations on this, my experience has too often been that people who define themselves as multi-taskers or cite their efficiency level as best when they’re doing more than one thing at a time… in reality, have exactly that same problem I do and tend, in fact, to just NOT get things done when doing multiple things at once, or to do those multiple things in a half-baked way.

    Ever since realizing that, I give myself complete, guilt-free freedom to be the one-thing-at-time tasker than I am.

  4. What an insightful comment, Laura! I think I have been in the “weak and frivolous mind” camp for too long, with all of the concomitant hustle, bustle and agitation, thinking it necessary for completing deadlines and keeping ahead of all that life entails.

    I am going to try your guilt-free freedom in being a one-thing-at-a-time tasker, too! :)

  5. Very interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing : )

  6. Thanks for stopping in, Robin!

  7. Very interesting article, Roxanne. I enjoyed reading it.

    When I have work suddenly piling up, I tell myself, just get on with it instead of panicking, and somehow it always gets done. I’ve seen some people get so panicked that they never even start their tasks.

    Thanks for your article.

  8. Anna and Lv Handbags….thanks so much for your notes!