It would be difficult to find any workplace that hasn’t tried to boost productivity by encouraging multitasking, but the IT department surely stands out as a primary use-case when thinking, “there must be a better way to handle this.” IT staff are in a perpetual state of information overload, akin to workplace whack-a-mole, or the mythical hydra where one defeated task turns into two new challenges. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s simply the demanding nature of the role. While strategies and solutions have been in place for decades, constant struggles still remain.
In today’s IT environments, mistakes or slow response times directly affect the bottom-line of businesses. Multitasking may increase these problems, and therefore, what could be considered a lifehack is actually a recipe for disaster. The usual state of thinking is, “can I juggle multiple tasks at once, rather than focusing my time and effort toward one challenge?” While an honorable goal, recent scientific studies have reported an unfortunate answer: no, multitasking will not make you more efficient.
Confronting the Myth That Multitasking Boosts Productivity
Simply living in today’s world means you must be able to quickly pivot tasks and overcome new hurdles as they appear, but everyone faces a point where their own balancing act fails. Our brains, from a child to a CEO, have limits to how much they can juggle, both metaphorically and realistically. MIT researchers have recently established this truth, and Professor Earl K. Miller, a neuroscientist and head of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, shared more in an interview with Moogsoft on the topic.
“When we think we’re multitasking, we’re not actually doing two tasks at once. What we’re doing is switching back and forth between the tasks very rapidly,” says Miller. This process of switching between tasks — though not consciously noticeable to the multitasker — comes with what Miller refers to as “switch costs.”
When multitasking, the human brain is required to reconfigure itself with a new “network” and backtrack to figure out where it left off of a previous task. Miller shared, “It makes you inefficient because you’re spending a lot of valuable brain computing time switching back and forth between tasks instead of really using the time to think.”
The cost of switching from one task to another — context switching — has long been known in programming circles, going back to Joel Spolsky’s 2001 article “Human Task Switches Considered Harmful”. Programming requires maintaining a mental model of the current state of the program, its inputs and outputs. Because of the complexity of that model, it is easily disrupted by interruptions, and takes a long time to rebuild — a process programmers refer to as “reloading state.”
Less attention has been focused on IT operations, but the same concerns apply: context switches, especially repeated ones, can cause major issues. For example, an IT operator is juggling various support tickets at one time and loses track of progress or resolution on each. Also, modern infrastructure is complex and often at least partly automated, meaning that changes should be made while considering their impacts on many various and distant moving parts. In any case, with moves towards DevOps, infrastructure as code, and immutable infrastructure changed through an automated version control pipeline, the distinction between “developers” and “operators” is becoming more blurry than ever.
The bottom line, whatever your formal job description, is that trying to juggle multiple complex tasks is likely to lead to mistakes being made because of information and task overload, leading to potentially serious consequences.
Stop Juggling Tasks and Start Monotasking
Miller shares that multitasking is detrimental, but also that people who believe the benefit from it are strongly mistaken, “What’s going on there is self-delusion. The people who multitask a lot do so because they can’t resist the urge to multitask. They do it, then they rationalize it,” he claims. “One thing the brain is really good at is deluding itself.”
- If you think you’re particularly good at multitasking, the opposite is probably true.
- No one is better at multitasking than they are at monotasking.
Instead, a beneficial workplace environment prioritizes monotasking as much as possible. “Our brains can’t ignore that informational tap on the shoulder, that craving for new information,” Miller shared. “You have to use your executive brain to plan the monotask [and] get rid of distractions.”
When applying this to IT, monotasking means organizing, streamlining, and prioritizing individual tasks wherever possible. To a certain extent, IT Ops has to react to notification of problems — but those should be few and far between. An IT department that is constantly in fire-fighting mode cannot also be thinking strategically about the future. Attempts to make wide-ranging strategic changes while also jumping on incoming tickets and keeping one eye on an event queue is a sure-fire recipe for missing a semicolon somewhere, leading to major production outages.
Attempts have been made in the past to limit the reactive work to front-line staff, sometimes referred to as the “phone firewall” that protects more senior personnel from distractions. However, this structure often backfires, leading to unnecessary escalations without the sorts of support processes in place to manage them, and causing burnout of experienced operators in addition to the previously documented impacts of distractions. In other words, trying to be only partly reactive will not work; the entire organization needs to be arranged so as to be proactive.
In the past, it might have seemed like a daunting task to restructure entire organizations to accommodate this type of workflow. Luckily, new technology solutions like artificial intelligence of IT operations, AIOps, that automate menial tasks of sorting and prioritizing never-ending alerts, can provide much-needed relief. Essentially, this approach delegates the reactive, repetitive toil of dealing with the endless flood of event and alerts to automated processes, combining big-data, algorithmic, and machine-learning techniques to identify which are the important issues which expert human operators should proactively engage with, focus on, and think strategically about — without distraction.
A strong workforce, whether in the IT or accounting department, is focused on the most important tasks at hand. When pairing monotasking strategies with technology that handles tasks in the background, employees can finally manage the bandwidth of their brain for creativity and innovation that propels brands forward.
Feature image via Pixabay.