James Joyce, 1 photographic print, b&w, cartes...
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I just got out of a project managment and personal productivity exam. Having studied for it for almost a few hours I noticed an over-arching theme in the material: Never-ever ever multitask. Only ever do one thing. Don’t you dare do more than one thing at a time!

This also seems to be what a lot of the internet is saying about multi-tasking.

Hell, some people have gone so far to say multi-tasking is bad as to perform some pretty heavy studies that all said that multi-tasking is bad and inevitably if you do decide to multi-task you’re only hurting yourself, your brain and your productivity.

But let me ask you something: When was the last time you sat down to do something and didn’t stop for a few days, or even just more than 5 hours, until it was done?

If the answer is never, then I’m afraid to tell you this, but you’re a horrible multi-tasker and should be ashamed of yourself!

Ashamed! You dirty multi-tasking bastard!

“But that’s not a task! You should break it down into sub-tasks!” I hear you cry, “You didn’t break it down enough! A task is a complete thing that cannot be broken down into more tasks!”

Fair point right there mister reader, but I’m afraid I have to disappoint you, everything can be broken down even more, while at the same time some things possibly can’t be broken down at all.

Let’s look at, for example, reading Ulysses by James Joyce. Reading this book can be argued is a single task. But the notion of someone reading it in a single sitting is positively absurd since it’s made up of roughly 700 pages, or at least the edition I have is. So, question is, are you a dirty multi-tasker if you don’t read a 700 page book in a single sitting?

I hope not.

Ok let’s try dividing the reading into subtasks. If you’ve taken a basic literature course in high school you probably know the book is comprised of three parts and that the general structure of the book goes from classical to more modern. Aha! Reading a part is a task. I can do that without interruption!

But can you really, even if the parts were equally distributed that would make 230 pages per part. Can you read that in one sitting? Arguably, you could, I know I’ve done it, but it took something like 5 hours. Are you a dirty dirty multi-tasker if you don’t read books in 5 hour chunks without stopping?

Hopefully not, because that would make a lot of normal people feel very very bad about themselves. And let’s not forget that part 3 of Ulysses contains five times as many episodes as the first and last part. It’s divided into 18 episodes!

Haha! An episode, yes, yes reading that is going to be a task. How absolutely brilliant! Now I can read roughly 38 pages of the book without stopping, then getting up and doing something completely different. Surely now I’m not an ugly despicable multi-tasker right?

Putting aside the fact that episodes in Ulysses are difficult to distinguish, there being no very clear divide between them, my edition leaves half a blank page and the style of writing changes … I think you would still be multi-tasking.

[Just as a side-note here, you could also divide it as far as reading a page, turning a page and so on. Then nobody could accuse you for multi-tasking when you read your email every two minutes. You’re only doing one task at a time!]

I mean think of it this way, when was the last time when you read a book 40 pages at a time and interspersed with various other activities and when you were done you still knew what it was about? It’s much easier to argue that reading a book should be one task, at worst, you could divide it into reading chapters when the book is structured appropriately.

But inadvertently, you divided a task into more tasks so that you could do more than one main task per unit of time. The fact that this unit of time was a day or a week doesn’t matter, you were still multi-tasking.

And pray forbid you did anything while the stew is brewing, you insane multi-tasker! 😉

The fact of the matter is, there is a reason round-robin (or a version of such) is the most successful task scheduling algorithm for processors. It allows a person (or a CPU) to do the most tasks in the shortest amount of time. Even though individual tasks take longer (you’d read the book in a week or two instead of a day or two), the average amount of time for completing a task is still shorter than with either FIFO, LIFO or SJF schedulers and there’s no chance for starvation to occur.

So now that we’ve established multi-tasking is very very good as long as you schedule big enough time slices per task, perhaps we can settle this debate and everyone will get back to work rather than continue debating whether they should unitask or multitask.

Or maybe I should ask the Internet a question: Where exactly is the line between multi- and uni- tasking?

PS: writing this blogpost took me 35 minutes, in this time I looked at the books on my desk several times, I also stopped to flip through Ulysses, then I grokked the wikipedia article about it, while writing I also listened to music, I also took some time to quickly refresh my knowledge of task scheduling algorithms to make sure I used the appropriate simile. I hope I shan’t be chastised as a dirty multi-tasker for performing so many things in such a short amount of time.

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