Monday, December 22, 2008

The Myth of Multitasking

Now here's a novel resolution for 2009--do less! Sound preposterous? Generally we charge into the new year with visions of achieving more than we did last year. Getting better results usually translates into doing more. In a weak economy, just holding your own may require working harder than last year.

Let me throw a little cold water on those plans. There's recent research that reaffirms what we've always known: We have limits. And for most of us, we're already there without adding any of those new responsibilities outlined in the latest strategic plan or corporate initiative or reorganization. Somehow, we've got to learn how to get more done in the same amount of time. The problem is, that's largely a myth.

"People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller in an NPR series broadcast in October. For the most part, according to Miller, we can't focus on more than one thing at a time. Our ability to switch attention quickly fools us into thinking we're multitasking, but we're really not.

So what's the problem? Psychologist Gerald Weinberg has calculated that when you try to work on two projects at once, you lose about 20% of your time to the task of switching between the two. Add a third project, and nearly half your time is lost. Researchers using brain imaging can actually see the brain struggling as it switches between tasks.

Ironically, the very technological tools (email, instant messaging, Blackberries, etc.) that were supposed to improve our productivity are contributing to the problem. They create increased interruptions that essentially have the same impact as multitasking. In a recent study by Basex, a business research firm, unnecessary interruptions were estimated to cost U.S. businesses $588 billion a year in lost productivity!

BBC reported that another study at the Institute of Psychiatry found that technology-induced interruptions can temporarily lower a person's IQ by 10 points. That's more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana.

All these findings point back to the premise I outlined in an earlier post entitled "Simplicity: The Leader's Secret Weapon." If you have a leadership role in your firm, let me encourage you to focus your efforts on enabling the effective use of time and attention. Simplify. Achieve more with less effort. Help your colleagues focus on their primary work. Minimize unnecessary interruptions.

There are a couple of tools on my website that can be very helpful in making people more aware of the problems described above. The Time Tracker helps you track your time usage over the course of a work week. The Interruption Tracker is used to track interruptions. Using these tools will enhance your awareness of the challenges you face in the battle for time and attention, and hopefully increase your resolve to do something about it.


Gerald M. Weinberg said...

Nicely done.

Here's a couple more tools you can use to eliminate multitasking:

1. The off switch on your phone.

2. The lock on your office door or cube.

3. Your mouth, when you've trained it to pronounce that difficult but multi-language magic word: "NO."

Mel Lester said...

Thanks for your comments, Gerald. And thank you for your contribution to this important area of study. I'm convinced that mental and time overload are at the top of the list of reasons companies struggle to improve performance.