The Futility of Multitasking

People often ask me how I get so much done.  My answer is that I don’t multitask.

Multitasking is a fiction. We think we’re getting more done by trying to do several things at once but, in reality, our actual productivity declines by as much as 40%. Neurologically, it’s impossible to multitask. Rather, we switch-task – rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves and losing valuable time in the process. Highly inefficient and rarely effective.

We try to multitask because our minds move considerably faster than the world around us. We can hear far more words a minute than anyone can speak, so we tend to believe we have extra time to do something else. Since we have so much to do, why waste time on doing just one thing when two (or more) might be possible? While listening to someone on the phone, why not use that extra brain power we have to look at our computer screen, clean up the desk or add a few notes to that always expanding to-do list?

What we fail to realize is that we’re already using those same neurons to detect and decipher subtle nuances, think about what we’re hearing or seeing, access our creative side and stay connected to what’s happening around us. But it’s not really “extra” brain power. It’s all we’ve got. Diverting it elsewhere simply diminishes its power, often with negative consequences.

You might of course think you’re different, that you’ve become quite good at multitasking or that practice makes perfect. You’re deluding yourself. Research clearly indicates that heavy multitaskers are less competent at doing several things at once than light multitaskers. In other words, in contrast to almost everything else you do in your life, the more you multitask, the worse you are at it. In this case, practice works against you.

Try this experiment: for just one week, don’t multitask. Then see what happens. If you’re on the phone with a friend, customer, supplier or consultant, either talk or listen. Don’t do other things. In a meeting, conscientiously focus on what’s being said before you think about what you want to say. Minimize or, in the extreme, don’t allow interruptions. Focus entirely on what you are trying to accomplish.

In face-to-face interactions, turn off the cell phone. Become engaged and fully “present” in the conversation. A global poll of over 5,000 managers found smartphones to be the main source of their distraction and more than half said it had compromised the quality of their work, greatly annoyed colleagues or contributed to missed deadlines.

Experimentation is the proven scientific approach to discovery. So try it and notice what’s happening in your mind when you do. Take stock of how you can work through really challenging tasks – the ones that typically demand serious thought, creativity and persistence. Observe how, by staying with the job at hand, obstacles are more quickly overcome or circumvented. Discover how new thoughts, even breakthrough ideas, more quickly emerge. Watch your anxiety level drop as you concentrate primarily on navigating around the hurdles that stand in your way.

Research tells us multitasking is not only inefficient, it’s also highly stressful. Keeping a lot of balls in the air at any given moment can be exhausting, mentally as well as physically. And trying to juggle all those objects at the same time is just not a good use of your most precious resource. An hour-long meeting becomes interminably long. A meandering pointless conversation can be excruciating. Eliminating the need to multitask makes you laser-focused on getting things done and done well. Doing only one thing at a time is liberating. And certainly more productive if the objective is to demonstrate your very best work.

Subtracting multitasking from your daily regimen fuels an intolerance for wasted time and a much greater patience for the things you find necessary, beneficial and enjoyable. When you listen to people whose ideas really count, you’re no longer in a rush to get to “the next thing.” When you brainstorm a difficult problem, you persevere until a solution is found. When nothing else competes for your attention, you focus intently on the result you seek.

By completing one thing before starting another, no projects are left unfinished, no one becomes frustrated with you for not answering their call or not returning an email the moment it’s received. They know it will be done as soon as you can get to it. That’s what reputations are made of – consistent and reliable performance.

How do you resist the temptation to multitask?  Everything starts with a commitment. As the saying goes: If it is to be, it is up to me. Since I believe in baby steps as the proven method to ingraining better, more productive habits, here are four you might experiment with:

  • Eliminate, avoid or reduce the constant interruptions in your life, especially those that arise when you’re working on tasks that demand creative or critical thinking;
  • Leave your cell phone in your desk when you attend an important meeting, especially with higher-ups – you’ll hear more, appear less disrespectful and even have time to reflect on what’s being shared;
  • Create unrealistically short deadlines; I suggest you give yourself one-third the time you think necessary to accomplish what needs to be done; and/or
  • Cut all the time you schedule for meetings in half.

But keep perspective. We’re human, which means we’re not perfect. Every once in a while, it might be OK to allow a little multitasking in your life. But the objective should be to start moving away from seeing it as the answer to all you think must get done. It just isn’t.