Multitasking is widely considered to be one of the most important skills a person can have, especially in the information age we currently live in. Indeed, almost every resume that crosses my desk states that one of the person’s many skills is that he or she is “a good multitasker.”
My eyes have come to roll at the sight of such “skills” as I’ve reached the conclusion that there are two types of people in this world; Bad multitaskers and horrible multitaskers. Indeed, I’ve known for a long time that multitasking is not a particularly effective way to do things, but it really hit home with me after reading Gary Keller’s great, short book The One Thing.
Keller argues that multitasking as one of the great myths of our time and aptly notes that “Every time we try to do two or more things at once, we’re simply dividing up our focus and dumbing down all of the outcomes in the process.” And furthermore, to “Bounce between one activity and another you lose time as your brain reorients to the new task. Those milliseconds add up. Researchers estimate that we lose 28 percent of an average workday to multitasking ineffectiveness.” (The One Thing, Pg. 50)
I would really like to see one of those resumes put something down like “great at wasting time by switching from one task to another before finishing the first one.”
Anyways, a while back I finally made it a major goal of mine not to multitask and my productivity has increased dramatically ever since. In particular, the projects that “I can just never get back to” don’t seem to be around anymore. They either get finished, or don’t get started. Single-tasking focuses the brain on finishing things. You see, our brains just don’t really multitask. Instead, when someone attempts to multitask, their brain just goes back and forth between disparate tasks and is unable to focus on either. This leads to frustration or a feeling of being overwhelmed which subsequently leads to procrastination or what could be called zero-tasking.
Indeed, Wikipedia’s entry on the subject sums up the research on it very well:
“Since the 1990s, experimental psychologists have started experiments on the nature and limits of human multitasking. It has been shown multitasking is not as workable as concentrated times. In general, these studies have disclosed that people show severe interference when even very simple tasks are performed at the same time, if both tasks require selecting and producing action (e.g., (Gladstones, Regan & Lee 1989) (Pashler 1994)). Many researchers believe that action planning represents a “bottleneck”, which the human brain can only perform one task at a time. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell has gone so far as to describe multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.”
It even notes that some researchers believe it is impossible to learn new information while multitasking. Humans simply don’t multitask, no matter what your resume says.
This all seems obvious when one thinks about it (while not thinking about anything else at the same time, of course). Taking one task on with your full attention allows you to, well, take on that task with your full attention. And thus, you dominate said task instead of going through the steps of frustration, working on something else, coming back, trying to reorient yourself, feeling overwhelmed and finally, giving in to procrastination.
Sure, it can be difficult at times. Especially for managers who have subordinates asking questions of them at all times about a variety of different subjects or those in customer service being barraged by various customers. Still, whenever possible, it’s best to focus on one thing and one thing only. And when going back and forth between things is unavoidable, it’s best to find ways to mitigate this problem as much as possible.
Schedule times to deal with such issues and make sure everyone knows that unless it’s an emergency, save your questions for that time. Try to have a relatively quiet work area. Utilize to do lists and keep your desk clean (cluttered desk equals cluttered mind). And if you have to divert your attention to a new matter, put the old one to bed for a while before returning to it.
In other words, become an expert single-tasker.