Multi-Tasking: Truth or Fiction?

The number of productivity tools we have seen introduced in the last fifteen or 20 years is staggering. Things like email, instant messaging, online calendars, smartphones, scheduling software, and so on, all hold the promise of helping improve the way we manage our time.  However, at the same time, we see professionals in all industries who are busier than ever and overcome with stress and the burden of too much to do and not enough time.  The tools don’t seem to be working.  Rather than helping us manage our time, as intended, it seems they have made it easier for us to become overwhelmed by the constant onslaught of information and requests for more time.  The real problem isn’t the tools:  It’s the behaviors we have adapted based on the misconception that these tools will somehow allow us to process more or manage more things simultaneously.  Multi-tasking is a great concept, but the reality is that it’s more myth than truth

Contrary to popular belief, a large number of research studies have shown that the human brain is not actually capable of true multi-tasking when it comes to tasks that require us to analyze or process information.  By that I mean that we can’t really do two things at the same time or more accurately, we can’t think about two things at the same time.  Sure, we can walk and chew gum or even rub out belly and pat our head:  the research confirms that it’s possible to do two things at once for things involving motor skills, but not for cognitive skills.  Instead, what we actually do is switch between tasks quickly.  The problem however, is that each time we switch, the brain has to reorient itself to the task before it can continue to move forward. This takes a tiny bit of energy, it’s less efficient and it can take as much as a few seconds each time. So the result is that things take longer, it’s harder for us to stay focused, it’s tiring, and the quality of our work goes down.

So think about the constant barrage of requests you get for your time.  Emails, instant messages, meeting requests, and so on all add to this feeling like no matter how hard we work, we’re just never going to catch up.  Technology has made us all infinitely more accessible, but that doesn’t really mean that we’re available.  Many people try to balance all the demands on them by trying some type of multi-tasking approach.  This might make you feel busy, or even that you’re moving a lot of things forward at once, but the question is whether you are really being effective in everything you are doing or, ultimately, just creating more work down the line.  Rather than simply trying to get everything done at once, perhaps a more thoughtful, structured approach might be more effective.  Consider the following:

  • Am I really able to switch between tasks as fluidly as I think I can?
  • Rather than trying to get everything done myself simultaneously, can I delegate certain things to others to allow them to move forward?
  • If I think about 2 or 3 big goals for the next week, would that help me prioritize some things over others and be more focused?
  • What would happen if I didn’t try to be so available all the time?

I’m certainly not recommending that you shut down all your technology and hole up in your office for days at a time to focus on  your work.  However, blocking out specific time to get things done can sometimes be a really good way to focus on an important task and see it through to completion.  You might find that by doing so, you can avoid all of the churn that comes from starting and stopping over and over again, and that when you look back at the end of the week, you might be able to point to a few things you have really done well.

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