The Myth of Multi-Tasking

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

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Nowadays, society applauds people who ‘multi-task’. We openly admire them and revere their ability to ‘spin plates’ and ‘juggle balls’. These people look very productive: the sort of dynamic people we should aspire to be. However, in terms of productivity, the evidence stacks up against these ‘busy-busy’ people.

Which would you rather listen to? A one man-band, using as many instruments as possible? Or a beautifully executed performance by a virtuoso violinist? You might admire the novelty factor of a one-man band, but when it sounds like a car crash at a junkyard, you won’t admire the quality of the music produced.

Let’s not mince words, here: ‘multi-tasking’, although it looks impressive, is unproductive. Multi-taskers – and their admirers – assume that they are efficient because they are busy, but the harsh truth is: they are often achieving precious little. In fact, they are “busy doing nothing, working the whole day through”, getting nowhere. Not even very fast.

Multi-taskers focus on the process, not the product. That is, if they focus at all! They are better at ‘busyness’ than business.

Next time you are sitting in a meeting, look around, and you will often see colleagues checking screens, texting and emailing while someone is talking or making a presentation. Despite the rudeness and ignorance, are they really paying attention to either task? Are they in a position to develop the next big idea or come up with an amazing solution that might really push things forward? And how well thought-out is their email likely to be, with half their mind on the meeting? They fail on all fronts by not attending thoroughly to either.

Multi-tasking is simply multi-distraction from getting any one thing done properly. Ask yourself – can you have a good conversation with your child or partner if you are constantly checking emails on your ‘smart’ phone? Can you give proper consideration to a new proposal while you are glancing at the latest set of financials for another project?

If you are tending to several tasks at the same time, which one gets finished first? Which one gets finished at all? All of the tasks cannot be equally important! The multi-tasker is either failing miserably to prioritise what needs doing most – or is constantly fire-fighting. Both amount to the same thing: disorganised chaos, disguised as dynamism.

One research study showed that people distracted from work by phone calls and emails experience a ten-point drop in their IQ: exactly the same as suffering a lost night’s sleep, and more than twice the drop in IQ that marijuana smokers experience. Productivity can be reduced by as much as 40%. Hmmm. The merits of multi-tasking don’t seem so great now, do they?

In my opinion, open-plan offices are one of the worst creations in business, beautifully complementing the misconception that there is merit in multi-tasking. Open-plan offices are designed to distract, through interruption. They are designed to disturb concentration, through noise. They are designed to waylay focus, through the certainty that sooner or later, something or somebody will steal your attention. By all means be creative, generating ideas and discussion in meeting spaces with others – but keep task-based work strictly private and focussed.

I see multi-tasking as a waste of time and energy that tricks us into believing that we’re achieving. It gives us the feeling that we are getting lots of things done from our to-do lists. But it’s a myth; we’re just scratching the surface of each task. The ‘feeling’ of being closer to finishing things is just ‘fooling’ you. The delusion that you’re ‘on the case’ with every task can mean that few things actually get finished at all; especially the important things that should be attended to without debate. Your time is a valuable commodity, so why let a pointless task to take an undeserved place in the crowded competition for your precious time and attention?

The feeling of achievement derived from multi-tasking is an illusion, caused by the misguided idea that all your tasks are equally important. Multi-taskers, in my experience, simply do not know the difference.

Ask yourself: are you doing something that badly needs doing, to move your business or life forward, or spending time on something that hardly matters at all? For example, are you answering an email about an order that won’t materialise, rather than coming up with a time-saving, money-spinning idea that will generate more business?

Multi-tasking also opens us up to mistakes. If our heads are so full of this, that, and every other job to be done, we are likely to miss important information. We might not retain information in our working memory if we don’t have a moment to dwell on it, consolidate its position, assimilate it into what we already know, analyse and innovate. This disadvantages our problem-solving skills; our natural creativity is not given the space to flow.

With their butterfly mind, the multi-tasker quickly flits from hearing something fascinating that sparks their thinking, to attending to a trivial email, then racing off into a meeting while taking a call, during which their head is also buzzing with preparation for their lunch appointment, along with vague thoughts about who texted while they were on the phone, let alone their home life, too… And meanwhile, that fascinating information that could have sparked a brilliant idea is fading away; initially filed under ‘later’ but already pushed ever further back into the recesses of the overactive mind, never to reappear.

The multi-tasker has no time to pause and evaluate. Come on! I’m far too busy! And the presumption is: I am busy to the max: therefore I am achieving the max. That BS doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny – but the multi-tasker doesn’t even have a moment to scrutinise. Can’t stop! No time! The multi-tasker thinks they’re doing all they can. I can’t do any more! I can’t work any harder than I am already! 

The simple answer is to work smarter, not harder.

The active mind should be an open, clear mind, not a permanently buzzing mind besieged by too many things all at once. The reality is that multi-tasking is about not paying real attention to any one thing. It is about not concentrating, for all it might look intense and exhaustive. Which it is, in its own unproductive way.

Truly productive people nail their tasks one at a time. They live in the moment, not distracted by what’s happening next, or what’s just happened. They maintain an intense focus on what they are doing. Their attention is strong and laser-like, rather than diffuse and weak.

How can you learn from this? How can you defeat distraction? How can you get more focused and, therefore, deliver more? In short, which ONE task really matters the most?

Having identified the biggie, you can tackle it in a relaxed, non-frenetic way. You are ‘uni-tasking.’ It feels good and, frankly, is easy, in contrast to jumping from one unfinished thing to another and back again, trying to remember where you left off, having to go over things you’ve already read or done, to recall your train of thought. Instead of all that effort, you are attending to what matters, and nothing else. Contrary to what the hyped-up multi-tasker might think, the rest will wait!

What I also like about this idea is that you can take it a level higher. If you own or manage a business, you will probably deal with employees and/or contractors and suppliers, so it’s important to realise that this problem is greater than just you. If you create an environment that encourages multi-tasking, or delegate in a way that requires staff to multi-task, you are promoting inefficiency in the business. Multi-tasking is a common plague – so inoculate yourself against it and inject other people with your new, effective philosophy and streamlined practices. Every multi-tasker ‘cured’, work process disinfected, and task completed makes your company more efficient. Employ specialists, and outsource to freelancers and consultants wherever required, rather than employing ‘Jack-of-all-trades‘ and masters of none. That way you can keep everyone nice and focussed on getting things done.

Here are some simple ways to resist multi-tasking, stop distraction, and allow focus:
Turn your phone off (especially if you are concentrating, or talking about something important). It doesn’t even need to be on vibrate. If the call matters, the person will leave a message. Many people count their own self-importance by the number of phone calls that interrupt them. You’re above that!

  • Turn off email notifications on your computer. Even spotting an email pop up, and choosing to ignore it, momentarily disrupts your concentration.
  • Set limited times in the day or week to check your voicemail and email. If need be, tell people what you are doing, and why, so they won’t be upset when they don’t get an immediate reply. Which would they prefer? That you responded to emails within seconds, or finished tasks successfully? (But don’t ask them that – the question is for you!)
  • Give a person your full attention – whether in person or on the phone. Listen carefully and make sure everything is understood before you move on to a task. That means: don’t look for your next meeting’s papers on your messy desk, punctuating your phone call with ‘Mmm’, ‘Yes’. Who knows what you’ll have agreed to? Let alone the fact that you might have to get them to repeat everything, wasting more time, or risk missing important details.
  • Tidy your desk. Get an assistant, a cleaner, or a flame-thrower to help. Even if it means piling things on the floor, make sure your desk only contains materials appropriate to the task you’re working on. Stray sheets from other projects, ‘interesting reading,’ post-it reminders, or Suduko puzzles are just distractors.
  • If you need to do something that does not require colleagues, find somewhere to be alone. Work from home, the coffee shop or in the library for two days per week. Anywhere where people can’t interrupt you with incidentals like: ‘Have you seen this?’ or ‘Can you just…’ or a blow-by-blow account of what they watched on TV last night.
  • If you find you are attending to several things at once, stop. You don’t have to wait for your balls to come crashing down… you can place them down for a moment! List the tasks, choose the most important one, and do it. You are not allowed to start the second one until that one is done.
  • Don’t tend to a trivial task before starting the important one. That’s classic avoidance behaviour. Those junk emails can be deleted (or answered) after you have prepared for that crucial meeting.
  • Employ horses for courses. Specialists or outsourced workers can deliver high quality work faster, more reliably and more effectively than your average employee (or even your most focused manager). Outsourcing work is more cost-effective in the end. Dividing multiple tasks between several experts, whether they are cleaners or accountants makes everyone – and your business – more efficient. Don’t employ jugglers. Employ doers!

So, do you want to keep juggling all your balls in the air? Or do you want to concentrate, aim well, and throw each one with strength and power as far as you can, to successfully reach your target?

Of course, there’s always a place for circus tricks. And that place is the circus. Or perhaps the pub….

If you are an entrepreneur interested in working with me to go tackle this type of problem then contact my lovely assistant getintouch@marcwinn.com

Further Reading:

Getting Things Done by David Allen (Amazon Link UK, US)

The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris (Amazon Link UK, US)

If the above topic, or indeed any of my blogs are of interest to you, then contact me and let’s talk! Drop me an email at getintouch@marcwinn.com.

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  1. Great piece Marc. One of my speakers Michael Bungay Stanier works very closely with David and has nothing but great things to say about him and his work. As David does for Michael see: http://www.boxofcrayons.biz/about-box-of-crayons/michael-bungay-stanier/

  2. Thanks benanliza. I like David Allen’s work and always nice to discover someone like Michael who is doing things differently. I hope our paths cross one day…

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