Friday, August 11, 2006

Multitasking vs. Division of Labor

This article about Inboxes (via Tyler) reminded me that it was time to clean out my own. Where do I fit in the Inbox-overloader vs. Inbox-emptier dichotomy? Somewhere in the middle; my Inbox collects emails until it reaches about 150, at which point I can’t stand it anymore and do a major housecleaning. On that day, everyone who’s been awaiting a reply from me gets one (or else never will).

I appreciated the following statement, which applies to so much more than Inbox strategies:
"Multitasking is a misnomer," says Mr. Bock. "What you're really doing is switching rapidly between tasks. And every time you switch, you have to start up again. Over the course of a day, you lose a chunk of efficiency."
That passage reminded me of this one from Adam Smith:
Secondly, the advantage which is gained by saving the time commonly lost in passing from one sort of work to another, is much greater than we should at first view be apt to imagine it. It is impossible to pass very quickly from one kind of work to another; that is carried on in a different place, and with quite different tools. ... When the two trades can be carried on in the same workhouse, the loss of time is no doubt much less. It is even in this case, however, very considerable. A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to another. When he first begins the new work he is seldom very keen and hearty; his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering and of indolent careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily acquired by every country workman who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different ways almost every day of his life; renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions. Independent, therefore, of his deficiency in point of dexterity, this cause alone must always reduce considerably the quantity of work which he is capable of performing.
And that’s why I prefer to concentrate my teaching duties on as few days a week as possible.


Steven Horwitz said...

Am I the only person who uses message filters?! Since becoming an administrator, my email volume is very high and I can't afford to miss any. I would be dead without message filtering. Stuff goes to the appropriate folder pretty much automatically for most important mail, and my inbox is never more than 30.

And I take an hour every 10 days or two weeks to go through my biggest folders and clean house.

Jeff Brown said...

Gmail uses a paradigm that I think is much better than folders: flags. Each message can have as many flags as you want, rather than being stuck in only one folder.

I never used the inbox as the "box of messages that need a reply". I think that's weird. If I have a task to do, I'll stick it in my to-do list with all my other tasks.

On a tangent re. the difference between multitasking in parallel and in serial: Ever notice how you can hear more than one note at once, but you can only think one at a time? Man I hate that.