Is multitasking good or bad for productivity?
I have always been good at multitasking, but I have recently had a debate with a friend who said multitasking is actually inefficient. I believe that I can get a lot more done when multitasking, but I do think it sometimes makes it hard to focus. I am curious what others think. I want to be more efficient and organized this year and wondering if I should try to be more focused on one task at a time. Thanks for sharing your experience.
I'm a firm believer there is a big difference between multi-tasking, task switching, and parallel processing (I'm a tech guy if you can't tell.)
Multitasking for people is not easy because we're not really wired to handle splitting our focus between multiple things. What almost everyone considers multitasking is actually task switching; jumping back and forth between tasks to maintain the perception of simultaneous progress. Parallel processing is the closest we can really get to multitasking and that is based on tasks in action that do not require our attention at any given time.
People's aptitude to task switching or time slicing (a similar but slightly different concept) varies but it all comes down to focus and the quality of the execution. Low value activities lend themselves to task switching because the quality impact is minimal. If you are working on something that demands a high level of quality in the result, doesn't it make more sense to focus?
Ok... think about it, can you really do two things at once. I can't even drink coffee and type on my computer - effectively, and without a wet keyboard:))
So the question is - can you do 2 things at once, and do them both well. I would say, it depends.
It depends if you can disconnect from one train of thought and action, and move to another with clarity, focus and purpose. Most cannot, some can. I tend to be very effective at blocking out 5-15 minutes to work on a part (or whole, though rarely) of a task, i.e. daily goal setting, then organizing my schedule, then making phone calls, etc.. But I am never truly doing those at the same time. As others stated, to do anything effectively, you have to have focus on something.
Now, how can you be more efficient and organized this year.... assuming you can only focus on 1 task at a time, whether that be 5 minutes or 5 hours?
Here is a practice I use myself every week (and advocate to my clients as well)...and trust me when I proudly state - I get a lot of stuff done, and done well.
Sunday (whatever time is best for you) - take 10 minutes to look over your goals and write out the 1-3 goals you want to accomplish by week's end. Then list out every task or activity you need to do that week to accomplish those goals.
Each weekday morning - take 5 minutes to identify the 1-3 must do's / top priority tasks from your Sunday list, that you will ONLY work on that day. Once you have the 1-3, prioritize those.... now, each day, work on ONLY the top #1 task until completion (or if you are like me, based on the time you want to alott, before needing a distraction and working on #2). But, you need to have only allotted that time if you can still get #1 done by day's end (or however much time you defined that task will take).
Once you have completed that task... OR say life causes that task to no longer be important, you simply go back to your list of goals and reprioritize, identify the 1-3, prioritize the tasks to complete... and you start all over again.
Sounds cumbersome, but trust me and the majority of clients... it becomes second nature and a discipline versus a burden very quickly.
BOTTOMLINE - to be more organized and efficient it takes planning. You have to commit to believing and executing on that or you never gain that efficiency.
You cannot be organized and efficient by keeping things in your head, not having a plan on what needs to get done, and acting on it based on the importance of the work that needs to get done.
Disclosure - the above Sunday, weekday goal setting process assumes you have defined your Yearly, Quarterly or Monthly goals..... in order to be able to act on and achieve your Weekly goals. But just because you don't have them today, doesn't mean you don't stop right now, and lay out your plans for the year, quarter, month or week now. Let me know if you want a workbook to help you.
For activities that require little to no thought it can be possible to perform multiple tasks at once, especially if one of them is completely passive like letting a video or podcast run in the background while you stuff envelopes.
For anything that requires focus you can probably only handle one at a time. Our minds ability to hold focus and the number of things we can be consciously aware of at one moment are limited. Switching focus back and forth between tasks consumes energy and increases the likelihood of mistakes.
All in all, multitasking is bad for productivity.
I think what a lot of people consider multi-tasking is actually a simple flow from one task to another but someone (erroneously) put a word to the action and BAM we have a society of multi-taskers. Looking for ways to be increase your productivity and remain focused? Try these tips:
1. For those days when you just can’t seem to get focused: Instead of starting with the most time-consuming or disliked responsibilities, try knocking the top five easiest tasks off your To-Do List. You’ll feel like a sense of accomplishment and will be more motivated to take on more comprehensive work.
2. Use a clock: Try working in a 90-minute cycle and setting your alarm for 75 minutes. Use the last 15 minutes to wrap things up; make notations etc. It also gives the chance to shuffle things around if you decide to continue working on your current project.
3. Block your time on a calendar: Scheduling your tasks on a calendar – instead of in your head or on a piece of paper – can help keep you focused and on time. When it’s possible, leave yourself between 15 and 30 minutes between each project to return phone calls or emails or have a chat with a co-worker. This way you’re not slammed at the end of the day.
4. Manage the distractions – Allow yourself to check your email and voice messages one last time before you being working than turn them off. Send your calls to voice mail and schedule an automatic email to send when someone’s emailed you. Make sure you include instructions for what to do if they have an emergency.
5. Work when you’re the most effective – If you write a business report better in the morning, get to work a little earlier than normal. Work better after your co-workers leave for the day? Pick one-day a week to stay a little later.
I am a Recovering Multitasker who still occasionally falls of the wagon. After years of thinking I was being effective and efficient I realized I was neither and the quality of my work was suffering. One of the things that set me on the right path was the book BrainChains by Dr. Theo Compernolle, which I highly recommend. I've since endeavored to stop all forms of multitasking, even going so far as turning off my mobile devices and email when I'm doing any type of creative work or critical thinking. I'll set a timer, come up for air every 45-mintues and check to see if there are any emergencies that need my attention. If not, I'm back to what we call "Heads Down" mode. I have found myself to be more productive, effective and efficient.
Good thoughts here. In thinking of the question, and ultimately deciding upon a measure of success for multitasking as an effective approach to completing work, let's say the success metric is twofold: more work completed in a given time (volume) AND no rework created (quality). Given that, here are some thoughts:
* the assumption is that multitasking is the act of doing two things at once: participating on a conference call at the same time as answering emails. For anyone that thinks they are good at this, I would proclaim you are fooling yourself. One task will always be subordinated to the other, regardless of your wishes or claims. Typing an email to client A while on the phone listening to client B discuss product characteristics doesn't even seem like it is set up for success.
* having said the last statement I will counter a bit with this: it is possible to have two tasks operating simultaneously, knowing full well that you will be subordinating one to the other. Match tasks that have natural breaks (I'm waiting for a reply from a client on product characteristics for project A, so while I wait, I will draft an email to client for project B).
* Tasks have natural break points. Use those natural break points to overlap your tasks and allow yourself a way to keep your brain fresh by working on multiple problems throughout the day. Keep in mind this fundamental flaw in multi-tasking: the more you break up a task into smaller pieces so you can work on many things at once, the more time you will lose in reviewing where you are in each project when you make the switch. Think about trying to read many book at once, all with the idea that you will get done sooner. Every time you change from one book to the next, you have to spend time getting "caught up" with where you left off. The more books you have, the longer it takes to get caught up and the more time is lost to non-value added activity.
Bottom line: multi-tasking has its place when it is right sized to the situation. Nothing is better than managing a project and its tasks end-to-end and looking for ways to cut out waste to get more done in a year.
Humans aren't hard wired to multitask like we do in the modern world, but some argue Women are much more suited than men in this area. Multitasking is a way of survival in business for many, but it needs to be still focused in its own way. For example emails and telephones can be a big distraction. There is a big cross over between good time management which directly helps with multi-tasking. The issue isn't multi-tasking but how you organise your time, prioritise, and focus on what needs to be done.
I am on the side that thinks multitasking is one of the very most inefficient ways of going about your day and I train and manage against this 100%. In fact, I think I even read that the human brain is incapable of truly multi-tasking as we are just not wired that way. An alternative to this will be to group tasks and knock things out in batches (especially email). Give it a try and I think you will see your day open up by a couple hours.
I think you have to apply the skill of multitasking to the scenarios that arise each day. As a leader of people and manager of processes the skill of multitasking must be controlled in order to bring the multiple events to a desired conclusion each day. At the end of the day if multiple items remain short of desired conclusion then multitasking could be the problem requiring more focus on the skill itself.
The science aside, which disputes the multi-tasking condition, it's best to do what works best for you. I surmise you are asking the question because your friend got you wondering. If a healthy debate puts me on the fence I tend to give strong consideration to evaluation and possible change.