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!).

by Patrick Phillips reply

Great post Karen. It’s amazing how in today’s world we think we are being productive by doing so much at once (Which as you say is really doing almost nothing). Your examples are great.

    by Karen Martin reply

    Thank you for your comment, Patrick. It takes a healthy dose of discipline to stay the course with focus. Remembering the examples seems to help keep people committed to a saner, higher quality, more productive (read: profitable) and fulfilling way to live and work.

by Andrew Peacock reply

Excellent topic! I HAD to share this billboard that I saw recently, although I don’t have a picture. It was a local repairshop, and this place is known for funny signs. It read:

“Multitasking just means screwing up several things at once.”

While funny, it is true and back to the original topic, your attention cannot be solely focused on multiple activities. Tunnel vision!

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hi Andrew! Thank you for commenting. I’d LOVE to see that billboard. GREAT message. So true. Minimize your switch-taking. :-)

by Zaheer Ahmed reply

Its really true.I have tried doing more than one task at a time and found it very difficult.The switching takes too much of your time to reframe your mind.

Thanks martin.

    by Karen Martin reply

    I’m glad you’ve experienced the benefit of one-task-at-a-time, Zaheer. It’s a lower stress way to be more productive.

      by Zaheer Ahmed reply

      Dear Karen,
      I am supposed to prepare a monthly Process Status Report.I work for IT/QA in a bank.Can u suggest me a template for the same?

by Brett Atkin reply

One of the big things in my field (a desginer/developer) is using multiple monitors. I’ve tried it and it just doesn’t work for me. Seeing more just makes me more distracted.

I read Dave’s book awhile back and agree that it is truly a myth. Unfortunately, it seems our society is built around multitasking, sometimes with deadly consequences (texting and driving).

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hi Brett – Thank you for sharing your views about multiple monitors. I would agree that they could be distracting if you had different applications showing for different projects, etc. But I find them to be wildly productivity-boosting when you need to, for example, copy from one doc into another, etc. Or for comparing two documents, two websites, etc. I find that all tools can be used to either help or hinder activity. Application is what matters.

by Dave Fabulich reply

Hi Karen,
Thank you for the insight into multitasking. I shared it with my workers and have found what you said very true. I came across a U-tube of a recent program called “Brain Games” and while the show is very interesting this particular show from minutes 19:30 to 26:00 show us how our brains work while multitasking:

    by Karen Martin reply

    Hi Dave – So glad you enjoyed this post. Thank you for referencing the Brain Games program. I just looked at one of the YouTube videos. Nicely done. I often challenge audience members and students to find a TV channel with a ticker tape running at the bottom (e.g. sports scores, stock prices, news, etc.) and try to both read and retain the ticker information AND listen and retain what the anchor or guests are saying. It’s impossible. You can only perform one cognitive task at a time. Thank you for spreading the word. We’d all experience less stress and have a higher quality of life AND accomplish more at higher quality if we accepted nature for what it is and stopped attempting to multitask.

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