Task-Switching is for Computers, not Humans

November 13, 2009

Computers are much better at multi-tasking than humans are. Why? Because a computer is designed to multitask. When a computer switches from performing one task to another, it saves the entire state of the task being switched out, enabling the computer to literally pick up where it left of when it returns to that task.

Humans aren’t wired that way.

Consider an activity that requires keeping a lot of details in your head along with applying some creative thought; where mental focus and concentration is essential, like programming. Programmers keep a lot in their heads during the act of programming, like how the code will be organized, what data structures are being used, the naming and use of variables, all of which is centered on the act of translating business requirements into detailed instructions for the computer to follow.

What happens when a programmer is pulled of one programming project to work on another project or problem? Valuable productivity is lost. In his book Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking, Gerald Weinberg proposed a rule of thumb to calculate the waste caused by project switching:

The graphic illustrates how switching between only two projects is very costly: You lose 20% of your time! By the time you get to three or four simultaneous projects, you’re losing significant productivity to task-switching.

This is also supported by recent studies written about in a Wall Street Journal article New Studies Show Pitfalls Of Doing Too Much at Once. One study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology points out that people who multitask are less efficient than those who focus on one project at a time, because the brain has to overcome "inhibitions" it imposed on itself to stop doing the first task in order to take on another tasks.

Not only that, but attempting to manage two mental tasks at once reduces the brainpower available for either task, according to a study published in the journal NeuroImage. This was proven by a relatively simple experiment where subjects listened to sentences while comparing two rotating objects. It was found that the ability to process visual input dropped 29% if the subject was trying to listen at the same time.

How does this translate to my day-to-day software management universe? As a software manager, I have my own personal rule that I manage by: If a project is important enough to start, it is important enough to finish. When someone is allocated to a project, they are expected to see that project through to the end; and I resist pulling anyone off of a project at all costs.

Equally important, I regard interrupting programming time as something that I only do as a last resort, when there is a critical issue. Like when another team is dead in the water and someone else has the skills and knowledge available to help un-stick that team, or when a customer is down and I know that one or more individuals can help. As a rule, I do everything I can to make these situations exceptions that occur very infrequently.

I'll wager that virtually everyone agrees that task-switching of programmers is very counter-productive, but all too often the day-to-day practices of management translate into interruptions and disruptions of productivity! We're all human, and it's easy to think, "What is one day out of a schedule slated to last a few months?"

Let's take a look at an example provided by James Shore and Shane Warden in their book The Art of Agile Development. They note that a programming task estimated at 8 hours could take 2-3 calendar days if a programmer gets interrupted.

While the impact of interruptions on an entire project don't seem significant when they occur, keep in mind that projects rarely have one BIG event that someone can point to as THE cause of a target date being missed. The reality is that software projects get into trouble a little at a time, and schedule misses are almost always due to the cumulative effect of lots of little things going wrong over time, like tasks taking longer than estimated. And if you are interrupting programmers, you are disrupting projects!

Programmers meed concentration time – and blocks of it – to be productive. Leave task-switching to computers.

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