The Allure (and Myth) of Multitasking

As I explain the Focus chapter in The Outstanding Organization, multitasking is a fallacy—you can only perform one cognitive task at a time. What you actually do is “switch-task,” which, according to Professor David Meyer at the University of Michigan, adds 20-40% more time to complete tasks than if you performed one task at a time.  The more complicated the task, the more additional time it takes to complete the task at hand. Other risks include added stress, poorer quality, and rework due to changed requirements or conditions when you return to the task.

Sadly, many glamorize multitasking as though it’s the mark of top performers, perpetuating the myth and rewarding the wrong behavior. “The ability to multitask” is sometimes listed as a requirement in job postings and a point of discussion during interviews. And unenlightened leaders often honor fire fighters who APPEAR to be able to juggle more than is humanly possible. Heck, the allure of multitasking has even appears in advertising, as seen in this billboard I saw yesterday as I was leaving Boston. The subtext in Microsoft advertisement for the Windows phone is that Jessica is cooler/better or more productive/competent/successful than you or I. In reality, Jessica’s likely a stress case wasting a lot of valuable time.

Microsoft multitasking billboard

The ability to FOCUS is a badge of excellence. In a world that demands more, outstanding performers do less and do less at one time.

Not convinced? Try these experiments:

  • Experiment #1: Select a TV channel with a ticker tape that runs sports scores, stock market prices, or news highlights. Try to pay attention to what the sports caster or news anchor is saying, while reading the ticker tape. You can only do one task at a time. You either retain what you heard or read, not both.
  • Experiment #2: You have two tasks to perform. Task #1: Write the sentence “Focus reduces chaos.” Task #2: Write the numbers 1 through 17. First, time yourself as you complete the two tasks by switching back and forth between them. Write the letter F, followed by 1 directly below it, then O, and 2 directly below it, and so on. If you’re like most people, it will take you between 25 and 50 seconds to complete both tasks. Now perform the same two tasks without switch-tasking. Time yourself as you write the full sentence, followed by the 1 through 17 directly below it. Most people take 30-50% less time to complete the two tasks when they work on them one at a time.

Spread the word. Educate people when they use the term multitask. Focus is a key behavior of outstanding performers of all types: athletes, artists, or business people. It works equally well with individuals, teams, and entire companies prioritizing projects for the year.

You can read more in my book, Dave Crenshaw’s The Myth of Multitasking or John Medina’s Brain Rules (great book!).

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