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.
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:
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.