Multitasking – your path to inefficiency

One sure sign that you’ve arrived is that you’re busy, right? So busy, in fact, that you can’t do just one thing at a time. You have to multitask to get it all done. Talk on the phone, write an email, make reservations online for dinner. It’s all part of your day. And again, to prove that you’ve arrived, you have to insist that all is well, that you’re really good at multitasking. But you’re probably not.

Scientists are learning that really, we can do only one thing at a time. We might be able to shift quickly between a number of tasks, but we’re not literally doing them all at once. Here’s an excerpt from a conversation between Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air and Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York Times, making this point:

TERRY GROSS: We think when we’re multitasking that we’re really doing great, we’re getting two things done for the price of one, or three things done in the amount of time it should take to do one thing. But what are scientists learning about how efficiently we’re doing any of those two or three things when we do them at the same time?

MATT RICHTEL: It’s pretty clear to scientists you cannot do more than one thing at a time. This research goes back years, and it is having like its new day in the sun, its new applicability.

Your brain effectively processes one stream of information at a time. I’ve heard this very basic test from a Stanford scientist that has stuck with me. It’s a kind of cocktail party test that researchers have known about for years, where if you sit at a cocktail party and you’re listening to the person in front of you, you can’t really listen to the person behind you.

In fact, you may pick up very basic things like your name being said, if someone says it behind you, but beyond that, you’re not processing both those streams of information.

So apply that to the person sitting at a desk, fiddling with a device or trying to read an IM while surfing a website or talking on the phone to a boss or colleague or subordinate. What you are basically doing is switching rapidly among those tasks, not doing them at the same time.

And all the research says when you switch among those tasks, you cut your effectiveness at each one of them by a significant degree.

You’re probably not going to give up multitasking. Your day is demanding, and you need to get as much done as possible.

But here’s the deal: When you have something critical to do, stop and do it. Give it your full attention. Turn off the email, stay away from the Internet, take the iPod buds out of your ears, and give it your full attention. Put time to do this on your schedule; make an appointment with yourself to be by yourself. Keep the appointment, and get your critical tasks done.

It’s the only way to get quality work done, to keep getting better at what you do, and to build your reputation for thoughtful, creative work product.

What do you think? Are you an addicted multitasker? Does it harm your work, or do I have it all wrong?

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3 Responses to Multitasking – your path to inefficiency

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  2. Alex C says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I’ve often had to share this idea with my employees and partners as they try to do many things at once. And, of course, I have to remind myself from time to time, too.

  3. Brian says:

    When someone on a conference call says “Sorry, can you repeat that, I was multi-tasking”. My response is “No, you were single-tasking on a different task”.

    Multi-tasking is not possible, unless the tasks are incredibly simple (ie, walking and chewing gum). One need only look at the number of car wrecks caused by cell phone usage while driving.

    I have one rule for my staff with respect to multi-tasking: If you are bringing your laptop to a meeting, you need to be the presenter. If you can’t be away from your laptop, then you shouldn’t be at the meeting.

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