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I've never been able to multitask. Task switching takes a very long time for me. Writing software requires quite a lot of mental "setup" and I need to get into the flow of it. This takes easily 30 minutes to begin, plus it takes me a while to wrap up and write notes or comments to leave off for the next time.

My manager insists that all his employees be able to multitask. He plans each hour of our day and sometimes will "double book" an hour, or say that during a meeting we should be able to talk in the meeting and write up some unrelated document at the same time. The typical assignment that I have trouble with is providing live software support while developing. When I say that I can't multitask, he says I just need to try harder. Everyone else I work with doesn't push back. I'm missing deadlines and milestones though. What can I do to resolve this?

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    Your manager apparently doesn't know how most software developers work, and how expensive task switching is. This will only get worse, unfortunately. Sep 15, 2021 at 18:19
  • The job of a manager is to make his employees as productive as possible. Not a good manager then.
    – gnasher729
    Sep 15, 2021 at 19:22
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    during a meeting we should be able to talk in the meeting and write up some unrelated document at the same time.... is that for real? Who made that guy the manager? Sep 15, 2021 at 19:37
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    Humans cannot "multitask". Despite what some people claims there are numerous studies proving otherwise. Interruptions cause loss of productivity despite what some people think. In your case, my suggestion is to find another job at a different company that doesn't have such an idiot as a manager.
    – jwh20
    Sep 15, 2021 at 22:36
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    This happens many times in my prev job. You have to assess if it may require you to reply in the meeting from time to time. If there is a probability then stop the doc work. Else do the writing part what ever u were telling. Its ok for u to ask person to repeat the question incase you were immersed in 'unrelated document'.
    – chendu
    Sep 16, 2021 at 9:56

3 Answers 3

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It doesn't sound like he is reasonable, but if you want to try to reason with him, one article to have him read is this one: by Joel Spolsky. It points out, that even if task switching had no cost, it still results in a longer average finish time. And it does have a cost, sometimes a quite significant one.

And then, while you are looking for a new job, do what you can with what you have, and don't worry about what you can't get done. Your manager can rave or cajole, but it won't change reality, and you shouldn't be stressed that it doesn't.

If you have a say in the milestones and deadlines, make sure you build in buffers to handle the task switching. A job that would normally take 8 hours, might need to be given a week, because you'll only be able to get 1-2 good hours a day. Write notes when you have to a stop a job, so you'll have an idea where you were, or take notes as you work, so they are written when you suddenly have to switch to something else. Write down what needs to be done, and mark it off as you finish each part.

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I did something like that for more than three years in a consulting and development company. Know what? It turned out one can learn to multitask! You really can! It is painful... that was the hardest job I ever had and it took years to recover after leaving that company (for other reasons). But today I can multitask pretty well.

So if you're ready to go through a long, tough learning process, there may be an alternative. Instead of telling him you can't multitask, you can tell him you need to learn and ask him to give you some time to adjust.

I am not aware of any methods for learning to multitask. Because honestly, when I went through it, I wasn't aware of the process. I realized it very late. In my case it was learning by doing. That means I was simply pushed (very far) out of my comfort zone for a long time.

Also I want to add: I don't think it is useful to multitask in many positions. In R&D e.g. it is a burden and lowers quality of work. Still it can be done if job or company require you to do so.

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    Given that most people say it cannot be done, given that there is research claiming it cannot be done, and given that it is thus at least not obvious how to do it, can you be more specific how to learn to multitask? What techniques exist, how can this be practiced, and how can OP ramp this up quickly? Otherwise, the answer is not useful. Sep 19, 2021 at 1:35
  • @CaptainEmacs Well, then people are wrong. Not only because I was able to learn it. Also because scientific studies proved that it is true (studies also proved that women can learn/do it easier because they tend to have more active corpus callosum). Sep 19, 2021 at 9:27
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    @Silicomancer If "people are wrong" which they well may be (many "obvious" and "well-established" facts were later proven incorrect, so give you the benefit of doubt), it is clear that this goes again the usual common knowledge and is not easy to achieve. So, some guidance is necessary. In the end of your response you, however, confirm what the other people say: multitasking reduces quality and speed. So, what you ultimately say is not that you can multitask but hop from task to task at an expense: and that we all knew. The people I know who "multitasked" well had what looked like ADHD. Sep 19, 2021 at 12:24
  • @CaptainEmacs you learn coping strategies - the same way Neurodiverse workers do - learning to time box descope for example. Sep 19, 2021 at 23:48
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Is your boss receptive to scientific studies? The research is pretty consistent in that multitasking comes with a high task switching cost (at least 40% of time lost to switching back and forth between tasks according to one study) and leads to increased errors (no surprise there). These issues grow in magnitude as the complexity of the tasks increases.

(To clarify, I’m not suggesting it’s impossible to talk to someone on the phone while writing code. I’m saying that you can’t simultaneously devote your full attention to both tasks and that doing both for an hour will be less productive and more error prone than spending the first 30 minutes on one and then switching to the other.)

This is something that affects everyone, not only you. I think most people simply aren’t self-aware enough to realize what you’ve observed about yourself. Given that your boss’s only feedback was to “try harder,” he doesn’t sound like he has much capacity for critical reflection and you’ll probably have a difficult time persuading him of anything. This combined with the rather extreme level of micromanagement he inflicts on you with his hourly schedules is a pretty major red flag.

I fear that if you continue working in this environment for much longer, you will start to experience major burnout, fatigue, and other issues that will inevitably impact other areas of your life. The only real advice I can give is to try and find a new job as quickly as possible. Since you’re already falling behind on your boss’s expectations, it’s possible this may soon become not only the best option but also the only one.

https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask

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