Taking Multi-tasking To Task

(This article was published in the January 2013 issue of ASCE's Leadership and Management in Engineering.)

Want to make the best use of your work time? Then commit to studying, analyzing, or writing for an hour; calculating for half an hour; or emailing for 30 minutes. You may resist this time management tip arguing that it won’t work because you are frequently interrupted. And who is interrupting who? Writer Kermit Pattison (2008) reports that half of the interruptions experienced by U.S. office workers in high-tech companies are self-interruptions, that is, “jumping from task to task.” We frequently interrupt ourselves! He also notes that a significant time period is needed to get back “on task.” For a similar message, see the book by columnist Maggie Jackson (2008), Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. How is that for an ominous message?

Activity is Not Necessarily Progress: Making Errors and Wasting Time

You may object to the focusing suggestion because you are a committed multi-tasker. Like a grasshopper, you jump from task to task. You Google, you blog, you email, you text, you tweet —and you did all that in just the last five minutes! You are certainly busy, but are you effective and efficient? Activity, however energetic, is not necessarily progress.

Multi-tasking is inefficient. In an intriguing and informative article titled “E-mail Is Making You Stupid,” business coach Joe Robinson (2010) says “People may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, but they can’t do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously.” Brain researcher John Medina (2008) writes “it is literally impossible for our brains to multi-task when it comes to paying attention.” Multi-tasking, which is really jumping from thinking task to thinking task, is very inefficient because of the time, perhaps unnoticed, needed to resume a task.

Medina goes on to describe the “50-50” negative consequences of multi-tasking by stating “studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50 percent longer to accomplish a task …and he or she makes up to 50 percent more errors.”  Psychologists David Strayer and Jason Watson (2012) report research which concluded that “our performance [on any given task] deteriorates drastically when we attempt to focus on more than one task at a time.” Efficiency considerations aside, I suspect that these claims of errors and deteriorating performance will grab our attention in this litigious environment. Somewhat optimistically, for some diehard multi-taskers, Strayer and Watson’s research suggests that a very small percent of us may be able to trulymulti-task, but they indicate that more study is needed.

Benefits of Not Multi-tasking

Peter Bregman (2011), a consultant, describes a one-week experiment in which he tried to not multi-task. He largely succeeded and realized the following five benefits -- there were no downsides:

  • Noticed more things and interacted more effectively with people
  • Made significant progress on projects
  • Experienced a dramatic drop in stress
  • Lost patience with things that are not a good use of his time
  • Gained patience for things that were useful and enjoyable

Going Forward

At the risk of appearing immodest, I believe that the ideas and information shared in this essay are very valuable because they address how we use one of our most valuable gifts, that is, our time -- the essence of our life. However, like many wise-living principles, avoiding multi-tasking is neither original nor new. Two millennia ago, Publilius Syrus, the Latin writer of maxims, said “To do two things at once is to do neither.”

Therefore, prioritize your tasks and then focus on one task for a significant period of time and, as a result, lessen stress, increase efficiency, and reduce errors. When the task, or a series of tasks, is finished, reward yourself! Kick back, grab a cup of coffee, enjoy one of those candy bars hidden in your desk, or take a walk around the office or the block. “Stressed” spelled backwards is desserts! Offset some of that intense and productive work, during which you avoid multi-tasking, with one or more well-earned and pleasurable “desserts.”

Cited Sources:

Bregman, P. 2011. “How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking,” Harvard Business Review, December 4.

Jackson, M. 2008. Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, Prometheus, Amherst, NY.

Medina, J. 2008. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, Pear Press, Seattle, WA.

Pattison, K. 2008. “Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching,” Fast Company.com, July 28.

Robinson, J. 2010. “E-mail Is Making You Stupid,” Entrepreneur, March, pp. 60-63.

Strayer, D. L. and J. M. Watson. 2012. “Supertaskers and the Multitasking Brain,” Scientific American Mind, March/April, pp. 22-29.

If you are interested in other ways to lessen stress, increase efficiency, and reduce errors, please contact me at 219-464-1704 or at stuwalesh@comcast.net. I have provided that kind of help to various organizations, as summarized here.

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