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Multi-tasking is Killing Your Business

Some degree of multi-tasking is unavoidable (like taking a call from your spouse while writing that briefing for your boss).  But when examined closely, it becomes clear that multi-tasking in general is certainly a very bad thing.

It is a well known fact that there is thrash when switching between tasks.  Some of this comes from having to put what you were doing on hold and picking up a new frame of reference.  Some of it comes from pure confusion over which task you are working on now.  But let’s assume that you’ve got some kind of dream team that can switch tasks perfectly. We do this because we don’t want to get into a long discussion of “how good I am at multi-tasking”.

Multi-tasking visualized

Suppose we have 4 projects of 6 months duration each. Let’s have the team multi-task and do all those things in parallel. They work one month on Project 1 , then move on to Project 2, and so on. Remember, we’ve assumed there’s no thrash so multi-tasking like this shouldn’t hurt much right?


Looking at this we see that the average time to complete the projects is 22.5 months or just short of two years.

Single-tasking visualized

Now let’s have our same team concentrate on one project at a time and see what happen


This time the average time to complete is 15 months. That’s 2/3 of the average for the multi-tasking schedule. But wait… it gets worse. What if those four projects are not of equal value.

But some projects are more valuable

We know that all projects are not created equal. Some are more valuable to your business than others. It is quite possible that your highest value project is a factor of ten more valuable than your least valuable project (or more). Let’s model this by saying that each project on our stack-ranked list is twice as valuable as the one below it. Remember that we’re talking value not effort here.

Let’s look 30 months out and see what each method has delivered in value to the business. Here’s what the plots look like when the vertical scale is business value per month. The light green shaded area is the total value the projects have generated 30 months after project initiation.  In this model it is the total area of that light green shading that counts.


So the multi-tasking project management method has delivered 124 units of value (8*9 + 4*8 + 2*7 + 1*6 = 124).

But the single-tasking project…


That’s a whopping 294 units of value (8*24 + 4*18 + 2*12 + 1*6) for single-tasking. More than DOUBLE the value.

In other words, if Joe worked for Single-Tasking Enterprises and you worked for Multi-Tasking Incorporated Joe would be kicking your butt. (And no, you wouldn’t be an acquisition target since Joe doesn’t want your dysfunctional multi-tasking IP.)

Okay, so multi-tasking is bad. What can you do about it?

The most important thing is to work off of a single prioritized list. You need one single list stacked top to bottom by priority for your people to use. The list must be public within your company. That way everyone is on the same page as to which project gets worked on first.

But I can hear you saying, “Hey, we work on many things at once because we’re so busy and need to get all this stuff done yesterday!”

Yeah, and you can keep doing that. And as we’ve shown it will keep killing your business.

As leaders (and I mean anyone who has people under them) we must set hard priorities and stick to them. Constant switching of a person’s “top priority” is a sure sign of weakness as a leader. If you are doing this STOP.

But what if you made a mistake in the priority order?

Look, even if we reverse the business value order and deliver the lowest value projects first we still come out ahead single-tasking. We get 156 units of value at the 30 month mark (1*24 + 2*18 + 4*12 + 8*6). That’s still 25% more than the multi-tasking result with the “proper order”.


The lesson is that it is less important that you pick exactly the optimal order in which to do projects. It is critically important that you build teams that focus on delivering one project at a time. Your teams must be empowered to protect their time and their schedule by telling all distractions to “get lost”. Your leads must understand this and be rewarded for protecting their folks from distractions.

Practical Application

This is an ideal and it can be hard to sustain the discipline, but just knowing this perspective can help you be more focused in protecting your teams time, setting priorities, and running projects efficiently.

LiquidPlanner is a great tool for practicing this approach, if you need help adapting your process to LP, contact our expert support staff.

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