Sequential Processing vs Multitasking

There is an interesting article written by Joel Spolsky titled Human Task Switches Considered Harmful. It compares which way of working is better: sequential processing or multitasking. Suppose we have two tasks at hand: A and B. Sequential processing means we work on the task A until it’s finished before moving to task B. On the other side, multitasking means we work on both tasks together. Since we can only work on one task at any given time, it means that we spend the first time slot on task A, then move to task B on the second time slot, move back to task A on the third time slot, and so on.

Joel shows that even without switching time, the average completion time for sequential processing is better than that of multitasking. Since in reality switching time is not zero (in some cases it could be significant), then the average completion time of sequential processing will far outdo that of multitasking.

The article actually takes software development setting. Joel argues that given this calculation, programmers should not be asked to do more than one thing at any given time. They will be far more productive if they can concentrate fully on one task until it completes before moving to the next task.

Then I think about it: does this condition also apply to our daily life ? Is it always better to do one thing until it completes before moving to the next thing ?

Well, I guess the answer is very probably yes. Steve Pavlina has also written a piece about it. But to be honest, this is one thing I lack of. Reading Joel’s article makes me realize that I often do the opposite: doing multitasking instead of sequential processing. I’m now thinking about how to change this habit.

6 Comments

  1. It might depend on the nature of the tasks, I think that for creative tasks like for example Writing, it can be very good to ‘Multi task’.

    For example, If you write an article about a specific subject or a ‘Short Story’ for a magazine. It might be verry good to switch from one project to the other. Because if you run out of ideas or inspiration, your other project might give you new ideas while working on ideas from a completely different angle.

  2. Because if you run out of ideas or inspiration, your other project might give you new ideas while working on ideas from a completely different angle.

    I agree, I often experience this myself. I think the idea of “sequential processing” here is working on a particular task as far as we can. As long as we still have the creative energy for that task, it would be unwise to switch to other task.

    Thanks for the observation!

  3. I agree with you in general however multitasking is a natural way and you can not avoid it.The key to success is to remained focussed while multitasking should go on in automata way without disturbing the seq way.

  4. The key to success is to remained focussed while multitasking should go on in automata way without disturbing the seq way.

    That’s a good solution. Sometimes we need to multitask but we should try to automate the other tasks so we can concentrate on only one task at hand. Nice tips!

  5. […] Over at Life Optimizer, an article examines this very thing. It has been shown that it is faster to process things one at a time than to try and multitask the items, and the suggestion put forth that programmers should not be asked to do more than one thing at once. […]

  6. […] at Life Optimizer, an article examines this very thing. It has been shown that it is faster to process things one at a time than […]

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