This column will change your life: The multitasker's lot is not always a happy one | Oliver Burkeman

Buying a gift for the person who has everything? I can heartily recommend the Butter Cutter, a complex mechanism into which you insert a stick of butter, whereupon you can cut slices of butter with – as the product's website boasts – a single action. Or the Strawberry Slicer, designed to address a problem that's been keeping many people from sleeping at night. Technically, I suppose, these are gifts for the person who a) has everything and b) is for some reason unable to use a knife. But if that doesn't apply, there's always the Onion-Ring Holder, the Lem-O-Saver, or the Flour Wand, along with countless other solutions for problems you never knew you had. And in fact don't have. Unlike the problem of a hopelessly cluttered kitchen, which you will have if you keep buying pointless gadgets.

The home-organisation blog mercilessly mocks such contraptions, which it calls "unitaskers" – single-purpose items that either do nothing an existing implement can't do, or don't provide nearly enough value to justify the space they occupy. "The only unitasker allowed in my kitchen," says the American TV chef Alton Brown, "is a fire extinguisher." Not all things that look like unitaskers are worthless. Some actually have multiple uses – as the film critic Roger Ebert shows in a new cookery book subtitled The Mystery And Romance Of The Rice Cooker – while some fill genuine gaps. (I'll defend vigorously, if not quite to the death, my banana-carrying case.) But these are exceptions. Once you've accumulated a basic set of kitchen tools, most additional purchases are about as useful as a Butter Cutter.

In this, the world of kitchen improvement is a microcosm of the self-improvement industry in general. Since much of the best advice is essentially well-known, convincing people they have problems they'd never thought of is a crucial precursor to selling a solution. Unitaskers also demonstrate a general principle of personal organising: the narrower the focus of some purportedly efficiency-enhancing system, the more likely that its costs – in time and effort, or in lost countertop space – will outweigh the benefits. Multiple home filing systems for different kinds of paperwork, say, almost always require more effort to maintain than they're worth; better to choose a single overarching A-Z system (or even a disordered stack, provided that the effort to locate what you need in it is less than the effort of keeping it orderly). Too many subject-specific to-do lists are similar. And multiple appointments diaries are disastrous.

None of which should be mistaken for an endorsement of multitasking, as in trying to focus on more than one task at a time: the research is ambiguous, but broadly suggests it's a bad idea. Which brings us to a different kind of unitasker: gadgets whose severe limitations actually aren't costs but benefits. I love my Kindle not because of what it can do that an iPad can't (such as being readable in sunlight) but for what it can't do; all it really allows is reading. In a sense it's a multitasker (lots of books) but in a vital sense it's a benign unitasker, permitting no distractions. I discovered the other day that it has a rudimentary web browser. But it's slow and black-and-white and irritatingly fiddly. I wouldn't have it any other way. If it were less rubbish, I'd probably spend all day using it to order Onion-Ring Holders online.

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