If you’re still wondering whether multitasking really makes you more productive than single-focused tasking, you’re asking the wrong question. It’s no longer a matter of if, but of how you manage multiple activities. Because, like it or not, multitasking is here to stay.
Unlike a decade or two ago, few so-called knowledge workers, from entry-level employees to senior managers, have the luxury of concentrating on a single task for long. Instead of poring over a document and turning it into the boss upstairs - as was common in the past - many professionals now work in teams or in dotted-line reporting structures that require ongoing collaboration with numerous colleagues. Aided by an arsenal of technological devices, information era workers are increasingly challenged to juggle multiple projects and provide ongoing status updates.
As an executive coach, I work with organizations and individuals in a broad spectrum of specialties including sales and marketing, management, human resources, legal and financial services. While some of my coaching clients consider multitasking a necessary evil brought on by downsizing, others see it as a boon to growth. Either way, nearly everyone recognizes the need to be a skilled juggler.
In an increasingly familiar good news/bad news conundrum, many executives and entrepreneurs are facing expansion even as their staffs are shrinking. Although they’re stretched thin, they’re expected to move at cyber speed as they stay in constant touch with clients and colleagues in the next cubicle, across the country or on the other side of the world.
Take Kathryn, for example, the director of communications for an international strategic services organization. She understands the do-more-faster mentality all too well. In the past year, her company has added a new chief operating officer and vice president of marketing, rolled out an organizational vision and global strategy, and conducted a number of worldwide conferences. As you might imagine, Kathryn is a proficient multi-tasker. “Single focusing is fabulous, but often unrealistic, since you’re constantly shifting gears among numerous projects at once.”
Strictly speaking, this sort of priority shifting is actually a kind of sequential processing rather than simultaneous multitasking. In this type of activity, the brain rapidly toggles back and forth among jobs, like when you are preparing a document, answering the phone and checking email, seemingly all at the same time. The problem with this commonplace office scenario is that what you’re really doing is interrupting your thought pattern, starting a new thought, then shifting back to the original thought pattern, and so on. And it’s not nearly as productive as you, or your boss, would like to think.
According to David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan, when people attempt to perform tasks simultaneously or in rapid succession, errors increase dramatically. So does the amount time required to complete a task, often as much as double. Meyer cautions that workers will, “…never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain for processing information during multitasking. It just can't be, any more than the best of all humans will ever be able to run a one-minute mile."
Since it doesn’t appear that multitasking will be outsourced anytime soon, it’s up to you to deal with it. Try these tips for taming the multitasking monster:
- Decide what works for you. Whether you check email twice a day or respond to every IM, Blackberry message or phone call the second it comes in, put a strategy for task and time-management in place and stick to it.
- Make good use of technology, but turn it off during face-to-face meetings. Not only is it the respectful thing to do, it will allow you to concentrate.
- Master sequential, rather than simultaneous, processing. Even in ten-minute increments, single-focus tasking can help you plow through projects in a much more effective manner than multitasking.
- Balance task time with knowledge time. Set aside time for big-picture strategic thinking so you’re not mired in maintenance mode, taking care of small tasks all day.
- Resist impulsivity and interruptions. According to a study of office workers conducted by New York-based information technology firm Basex, interruptions eat up 28%, or 2.1 hours, of the average employee’s workday.
Finally, don’t forget to schedule time for what is still the best low-tech connection: face-to-face conversation. Just make sure you’re not interrupting!