The Truth Behind Multitasking
Technology and the modern world have given us many advantages—but multitasking isn’t one of them.
Multitasking isn’t just about working on more than one task at the same time. It also involves switching back and forth between tasks, and performing two or more tasks in rapid succession.
Sound like a typical work week?
Not too many years ago, multitasking was hailed as the new professional advantage. Technical teams, creative groups, CEOs and startups were all looking for ways to morph into multi-limbed GTD miracle makers. Then, studies started to unearth the truth about spreading our attentions too thin: It’s hard to be effective, productive and work with a clear sense of purpose when you’re juggling priorities or task switching every day.
Just as multitasking is credited for some amazing advancements that include the survival of our species and the birth of technology, there are some pretty sweeping repercussions. The realities of being in two or more places at once—or concurrent places without transition—is proving to be a losing game in the long run. We put our brains, our productivity, our relationships and business successes at stake.
That multitasking feeling
One sign of multitasking is feeling like you’re not getting enough accomplished. You are, but it might not seem impactful. Even if you have schedules and project management software beckoning you toward a deadline—and you might even get there!—the process of zig-zagging your way there can be an unfulfilling experience. Even the most peckish attention spans need the feeling and accomplishment of pointing to a result from a hard day’s work.
A day of multitasking might include: A meeting or two, during which you might try to simultaneously chip away at some other work or answer emails; then back at your desk you’re interrupted with a request to estimate a possible incoming project. You finally return to your day’s priority, and then there’s an emergency that has to be attended to—it never ends. The trick is to be able to respond to fast-changing needs but know when to pull back and dive deep for a while.
No, you’re not so great at it
A lot of people think they’re great multitaskers and some are. But in truth, most people aren’t the miracle-working multitaskers they claim to be. Even if you think your attention span is five seconds long, it’s not in our nature to keep ourselves out of a flow state, which is what hyperactive multitasking does. The trick is to make room for spaces in the day to do deeper and more meaningful work that will make a difference to the business, your team, stakeholders and you.
What do you do about multitasking?
There’s a difference between getting a lot of different types of work done, and multitasking. The first case might involve blocking out three different time periods to devote to three separate tasks. The second case might involve picking away at three different tasks within one block of time. Know the difference, and make sure you don’t get sucked into being a serial multitasker.
The call to manage multiple tasks probably won’t go away. But there are ways to manage it and minimize it. Whether you’re a manager, a contributor or coding away in your home office, here are a few suggestions. Most importantly, see what works for you.
Identify the work that matters most in the present moment to move the project forward. And then commit yourself unflinchingly to a set period of time, or to completing it, whichever makes most sense. If you’re stuck, talk to team mates or your manager to clarify priorities. If you use project management software, see what the schedule tells you about the work that most needs to get done right now.
Don’t encourage it.
If you’re a boss, try to keep the task switching at a minimum. Every time we have to start and restart work, we lose 15 minutes just in the process of returning to our original task. If you’re a team member, be respectful. Don’t randomize or interrupt busy coworkers with ad hoc requests. Find the right time.
Schedule tasks to blocks off working time.
If you have to, remove yourself from tempting distractions, or ask co-workers not to bother you.
Practice, practice, practice.
If you’ve gotten used to a lot of task switching or weaving through your tasks over a period of time, it comes down to changing habits. Use discipline and formulas to create a framework for yourself to stick with. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t respond to outside requests. Don’t check email. If your mind wanders, take a deep breath and come back. And keep at it.
Go somewhere that forces you to focus; turn off your phone, email, alerts, IM, etc., for a set period of time.
Hold tech-free meetings.
This is a tall order, no doubt about it. But if you can, see what happens if you have a meeting where no one brings their laptops or phones and you focus just on the meeting. Use your schedule or bug tracking tool to run the meeting and keep everyone focused on moving through a similar agenda. Everyone is spared of the temptation to multitask and who knows—your meetings might get a whole lot better too!
There are a lot of articles on multitasking from a variety of perspectives—not all of them are bad, either. Here’s a short list for you:
The Pros and Cons of Doing One Thing at a Time, Harvard Business Review
Multitasking Is Bad?, DZone
How do you get stuff done in a multitasking world?
A Hitchhikers Guide to Project Management: Aligning Strategic Priorities
How to Stop the Planning Fallacy From Disrupting Your Projects
9 Project Management Tips to Make Order out of Chaos