Multitasking – your path to inefficiency

A friend of mine in Chicago, Gini Dietrich, wrote the other day about her secret to getting more done. You can read her post here. Gini wisely pointed out that multitasking is a myth and that you will get more done if you focus on one task at a time. Her thoughts inspired me to share the post below once again. It was originally published Oct. 10, 2010.

One sure sign 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

  1. As you know, I am a big believer in turning off all the distractions to get things done. I do this all day – an hour at a time, with 30-45 breaks in between. I consider phone calls and meetings those hour blocks, as well, so it’s not like I’m spending all day at my desk working (that would be SO NICE). I’ve even implemented a no phone, iPad, laptop in internal meetings. It’s too distracting and it feels disrespectful to everyone else.

  2. Peter Faur says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Gini! I absolutely agree that checking emails and sending texts during a meeting is counterproductive. If there’s a reason to meet, then there’s a reason to pay attention while you’re meeting!

    Hope all is well with you. Pete

  3. Pingback: More about the evils of multitasking

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