The Deception of Multi-tasking

Multi-tasking is one of those things that sounds like a good idea at first glance but upon consideration loses its credibility when looking at real-world examples.

The premise is that there are opportunities where two separate tasks can be done at the same time allowing for more tasks knocked off the todo list. The truth is we don’t multi-task, we task-switch and during that task-switch, we lose concentration and time.

First, let’s talk about computers. Here is the ultimate task-switcher—not multi-tasker. Computers quickly switch between the tasks at hand and offer the appearance of multi-tasking. I am not going to go into the technicals, but rather a common experience you may have noticed. Here’s how it plays out. You are in a rush and fire up the computer, impatiently as it is waking from sleep you jump to your favorite search engine… hmmm this seems to be taking longer than normal. Well, you have that email to send so let’s add email to the load. Now things are starting to really lag.

Now onto the human side of task-switching. Computer has finally fully loaded and you are humming along, blowing through the project recap email when your colleague, Jane, walks in to chat about another project starting next week. Just a few more lines and you can get this email off before your remote team leaves for the day. No problem you got this you’re a multi-tasker. Where were you in that email, that’s right the second line really needs rewording. Ok, need to focus on Jane for a moment this budget bit is incredibly important. Great, the added costs will be covered! Dang, took a bit to long there and now the computer has gone to sleep. Ok, the computer is back and now how to close the email. Alright, email sent on time and you covered what you needed to with Jane about the project kick-off meeting with her team. Wait, are you supposed to schedule that meeting or was Jane going to do it? You’ll have to figure that out tomorrow, six more priority items to get done before you leave.

Concentration is lost as one task requires increased levels of focus, during that time important bits of information from the opposite task are overlooked, You cannot concentrate on two tasks at the same time and give both 100% attention. Anything less than 100% and you will miss something important. Losing focus on the email when Jane came in and you had to refocus on where you were. By the way, it was really the third line you meant to rework and you’ll be getting some emails to clarify that part. Also, you remember Jane offered to schedule the meeting but you are not sure whether you both actually agreed on who would send out the invites.

Time is lost as a task that is not focused on always takes longer to complete. The computer went to sleep and took time to reload. In the conversation with Jane, You had had to ask for clarification on a point you should have grasped the first time she said it. Add in the time it will take to email Jane about who is supposed to schedule the meeting and well, more time wasted.

Better to focus on one thing, getting it done well and efficiently.