Time Management: Avoid Multi-Tasking (Tip #8)

Everyone’s job seems to require some multi-tasking but contrary to commonly held belief, multi-tasking is quite inefficient and ineffective for a lot of today’s knowledge-based work.

There have been several articles written on the fractured attention span of people these days, forced to synthesize large amounts of data and make decisions very quickly with little or no time to focus.  McKinsey and Company wrote a very interesting article focused specifically on the C-suite roles, however, the message was clear.

  1. Multi-tasking slows us down — the root of the problem is that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time.When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: in a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30% longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence.The delay comes from the fact that our brains can’t successfully tell us to perform two actions concurrently. When we switch tasks, our brains must choose to do so, turn off the cognitive rules for the old task, and turn on the rules for the new one. This takes time.
  2. It hampers creativity — one might think that constant exposure to new information at least makes us more creative.However, research by the Harvard Business School showed that the likelihood of creative thinking is higher when people focus on one activity for a significant part of the day and collaborate with just one other person.

Conversely, when people have highly fragmented days with many activities, meetings, and discussions in groups, their creative thinking decreases significantly.

  1. Multi-tasking causes us stress — in laboratory settings, researchers have found that subjects asked to multitask show higher levels of stress hormones.A survey of managers conducted by Reuters revealed that two-thirds of respondents believed that information overload had lessened job satisfaction and damaged their personal relationships. One-third even thought it had damaged their health.
  2. Multi-tasking has an addictive quality to it because it tends to reward distraction and looking for the next “best” thing to draw you away from something you are doing.This becomes especially easy when we are working on things we don’t like or have little skill at (these tend to be the toughest assignments to stick with).  Edward Hallowell and John Ratey from Harvard, for instance, have written that the neural effects follow the same pathways used by addictive drugs.

The tip of the week is to eliminate or limit activities that draw you into multi-tasking, such as leaving your email up all day long, or turning off your message alarms both on your computer and your phone, or answering the phone in the middle of a meeting or important work.

Instead, carve out and create more opportunities to focus in order to effectively move through work.  If you do this, I believe you will enjoy the results of making fewer mistakes and potentially tapping into more creativity.

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant