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Multitasking: Don’t do it

We, as people, are constantly evolving. We are in a constant state of change, but whether that change is to move forward or backward, or will become a hindrance or will further our evolution is questionable. We see this in history: after the boom and subsequent decline of the Roman Empire, there came the Dark Ages where there was little progress. There were also times of great progress such as the Industrial Revolution and the current Digital / Tech revolution we are experiencing.  Although I’m certainly not about to equate our current technological and digitization boom with the Dark Ages (that would be quite funny!), today in every company I work with, I see management trying to achieve more with less. Achieving more with less leads people to be over-booked, trying to work on many things all at once, and constantly switching context. What does this management and working style do to our employees and society as a whole? It leaves people stretched, working on many initiatives, and not understanding what is actually top priority (as everything is top priority), stressed out, and anxious. This inevitably results in poor work deliverables. This “evolution” to multitasking is not a good thing as our brains are not wired to multitask well.


It’s a strange practice as the people who try to get it all done likely work tirelessly with long hours. That work could be visible to management and these people may get promoted due to their dedication. However, what are the actual results of that? Are they truly executing better than their counterparts? I’m not so sure of that.


My argument is that it’s best to have people focused on one initiative. You may have heard that good performers are able to focus on a given task and don’t let interruptions get in the way. Their minds are focused on one thing and don’t let email, texts, or other distractions in during this time. They are then able to complete that one task and move on to the next. That research is readily available, for anyone who may be interested.


I saw a video recently of a girl trying to multitask by writing down the letters of the alphabet and numbers at the same time in order. This girl failed miserably, not because she’s illiterate or doesn’t know her letters or numbers, but because our brains clearly are not designed to multitask. The push to multitask within our society is interesting, as there may be a small percentage of people who are able to do this. Will natural selection occur by allowing these people to be prolific ultimately weeding out those of us who cannot multitask? At this point, I don’t think so: there’s nothing linking this ability to our ability to survive.


Inevitably, trying to multitask leads to getting nothing done, or getting something almost done but poorly. If we were to focus on one task (eg. Writing all letters in the alphabet) and then another (eg. Writing all numbers 1-10) then we could execute flawlessly. The context switching from switching between tasks costs us much time. Think about 30 second each time you switch a task to get oriented with it and its history. That adds up over the course of a day. That could very well add up to 20 minutes of lost productivity simply due to the overhead of task switching.


Let’s try it! This upcoming week take some days to focus on completing tasks. Get out of your email, only open it during specific hours designed to follow up with people. Let’s see how this changes your productivity and ability to deliver work.



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