If your work is anything more complex than walking and chewing gum, you don’t want to multitask! In fact, I contend that effective multitasking doesn’t really even exist!
Multitasking is really task switching masked as a more impressive endeavor. But don’t be misled – multitasking is a curse not a blessing!
When you switch from one task to another, you waste time getting up to speed with the new task. You waste momentum. But perhaps most importantly, you lose focus. While multitasking, you may find it more difficult to become deeply engaged in a particular task; you might find it more challenging to devote your full brain power, knowing that you will not be on that task for long.
Cracking the Code
An obvious example of the pitfalls of multitasking is when you are writing computer code, of which I admittedly did only a little bit (I did find it to be an excellent way to exercise your brain and I highly recommend it for that purpose if you have lots of time to kill!). Programmers know that getting back into a complex coding assignment following a disruption can take a long time, such as much as 15 minutes.
What is less obvious is how long it takes a business entrepreneur to get back up to speed following an interruption or because of “multi-switching” between the myriad tasks that they must confront. We tend to ignore how long it takes us to get back to speed because our work tasks are often softer, more varied, and the impact of disruption is more difficult to measure than that of a computer programmer.
But stop and think about it for a minute: if we work only (because of multitasking) in 10 or 20 minute chunks of time on tasks like creating a marketing plan, making product or service changes, or dealing with a significant employee issue, what are the chances the quality of our solution is going to be as good? How much better would our output – in terms of quality and content – be if we could work on key tasks absolutely uninterrupted for several hours? What are the chances it would take less overall time if we could work through significant items in one sitting, instead a just putting in a few minutes here and there?
An Alternative Approach
Clearly we are going to be one heck of a lot better off if we can focus on tasks until we complete them. Now there are definitely times when it is more efficient to set a task aside, such as when we need more information, input from someone else, or we are just getting frustrated with it and need to set it aside. But, as a general rule, we are much better off if we focus on a task until it is completed.
Rather than just stopping at avoid multitasking, I would go a step further: Focus on one important task each day!
Sure there may be some other things you must do, but either get them over and done with first thing in the day, save them for the end of the day, or put them off altogether, if that makes sense. I find that if I can overwhelmingly hone in on just one critical task for each day, I will be dramatically more productive!
Maybe you “need” to multitask because your workplace has become too disruptive by habit or by the nature of the work. Perhaps “quiet hours” would help.
My original CPA firm put into practice “quiet hours” from 9:30 AM to 11:00 AM each day. This was a time when all of the accountants dug quietly into their own work without interrupting one another. They even let their clients know that they would not take client phone calls during that allotted time.
I have tried similar “quiet hours” at my companies when the disruptions seemed to get too distracting and they worked quite well, after a brief adjustment period.
The bottom line: don’t multitask, focus! And focus overwhelmingly on one key task per day whenever possible!