The Myth of Multi Tasking

Who are we kidding?

Those of us of a certain age were raised on commandments such as, THOU SHALT FINISH WHAT YOU START – NOW!


Somewhere in the last two decades a movement arose to change the tempo of life and that change then became the rule of the land. A new word developed to describe this phenomenon – multi-tasking. Employers wanted people who had this process because that meant more work would get done, thus increasing productivity, thus increasing the all important bottom line.

Recent articles suggest that multi-tasking isn’t the ‘end all’ process. The trending advice right now is to stop multi-tasking—it’s just another form of distraction.

Multi-tasking can actually decrease your productivity. Switching from task to task quickly does not work. Tony Wong, a project management blackbelt, whose clients include Disney, is an expert in keeping people on task. He commented for Inc.com. writer, Ilya Pozin, that changing tasks more than 10 times in a day makes you dumber than being stoned. When you’re stoned, your IQ drops by five points. When you multi-task, it drops by an average of 10 points, 15 for men, five for women (yes men are three times as bad at multi-tasking than women). That analogy seems a bit strong and I’m wondering at the research criteria and control and non-control groups.

Birmingham Business Journal contributor, Karen Sladick, explained that productivity and efficiency depend on your ability to conclude one activity totally, and correctly, at a time. When you focus on the task at hand, you are thinking about the process not just working the process.

Think of a simple task you may have completed while watching TV. If the end result was to stuff A into B, not much focus was required. If some envelopes get A and C unless they are out of state and then they get A & D, now the lack of focus can compromise the success of the mailing. Focused concentration results in high levels of productivity. Multi-tasking leads in the other direction.

A study performed at two west coast high tech firms logged how many interruptions employees had in one day. How many minutes would you guess it took for a worker who had been distracted to return to the task?

  • It took an average of 16 minutes to return to the task at the previously fully engaged level.

If you find you’ve accomplished a fraction of what you’d planned for that day or that your employees haven’t hit target goals, chances are that multi-tasking is the culprit.

When you’re talking on the phone and opening the mail you think you are doing two things at the same time.

NOT SO. Think of the sentence “As I entered the house, I wiped my shoes on the mat.” No you didn’t. You entered, and then wiped your shoes. Or depending on the placement of the mat, you wiped yours shoes and then entered. The difference is subtle but noteworthy

When we think we are doing two things at once, we are really switching quickly between the two tasks. And something will be lost in the shifting. Think of talking on the phone while you are checking boxes on a document and then signing and dating them. Then add listening to someone in your doorway who is telling you who is on the other line. Then your email beeps and you take a quick look to see if it’s urgent. You are not doing these tasks simultaneously. You are in the ‘start, slam on the breaks, start again, stop hard’ mode that you wouldn’t do to your car.

Ban the word from job descriptions; instead ask for a person with focus. This is not synonymous with “attention to detail.”
Focus is a state of mine; a conscious attempt to rein in the clarity of thought and shut out the inconsequential in order to complete the task at hand.

At a recent workshop the facilitator asked a volunteer to recite the alphabet from A-J and then recite the numbers from 1-10. She timed both exercises. The person recited each series in three seconds. Then the volunteer was asked to recite the first letter of the alphabet then the first number in the sequence, then the second letter than the second number and so forth until the end. It took her fourteen seconds.

People tout the ability to multi-task as a godsend to the work place. What we really need is the ability to “do one thing before you start another.” Going back to the workshop example, if working sequentially completes four tasks in fourteen seconds and working concurrently completes one task in fourteen seconds, where is our efficiency and productivity?

Look then for SOLO-TASKERS who diligently and thoroughly complete one task after another, after another. Sequential-style work flow doesn’t mean everything grinds to a halt as each project is completed. The work flow is more even with less stops and starts.

Who populates your office, solo-taskers or multi-taskers? Do they start with a pile of papers stacked neatly in the middle of their desk and complete one item at a time working down the pile? Do they spread out the papers in piles on their desk and pick at it piece by piece, working down the individual piles? Which tasker suits your company’s needs?