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This is Important: Debunking Multitasking

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Everybody jokes about “multitasking” and how many “hats they have to wear at once.” But as we tell our Indianapolis consulting firm clients all the time: multitasking is a myth and this myth is a serious problem.

It’s hard to think of an example of business productivity advice which is more fundamental or more commonly ignored. Informally, we’ve known for a long time that multitasking doesn’t work. Scientific studies on managing multiple tasks all show that personal productivity is diminished, whether it’s about distracted driving or remembering your shopping list after an interruption.

At the same time, people tend to boast about multitasking. Here in Indiananapolis, consulting companies sometimes announce that they are able to help more than one customer at the same time! We’re often proud of all we can “accomplish” at the same time, as we stand in line at the airport, check email on our cellphones, and finish a sandwich. 

But in reality, are you really comprehending written messages if you’re also constantly looking to see where you should be walking? Are you savoring a meal if you’re trying to type a response on your Blackberry? We can’t really do more than one useful thing at the same time. At least, not without making those activities far less meaningful.

Moty Koppes, a business development coach, offers a great round-up of the multitasking problem on her website. Here’s what she has to say about this personal productivity technique:

The term “multitasking” was originally used to describe computers’ parallel processing abilities. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the term began appearing on resumes as jobseekers restyled themselves into high-tech, high-performing team players.

In the business world, where time management is always a priority, multitasking skills are expected, especially in younger workers reared in multiple media environments.

Beginning in 2005, however, studies began to show that distractions negatively affected productivity and efficiency. A study funded by Hewlett-Packard and conducted by the University of London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that “workers distracted by email and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.” The report termed this new “infomania” a serious threat to workplace productivity.

Koppes is right: multitasking is a serious problem. It’s such a serious issue that Dan Crenshaw wrote an entire book about it, The Myth of Multitasking.

Indianapolis Consultants on Multitasking

© Flickr user ryantron

That’s not to say you can’t delegate tasks to machines or systems. When the weather turns cold in Indianapolis, consultants in our company sometimes use a remote starter for their car. But that’s not multitasking. That’s no different than pre-heating the oven while you prepare ingredients.

What do the experts advise? How should we deal with our tendency to try to do too many things at the same time? Here are some helpful tips:

  • Create devoted spaces – If you need to focus on just one task, like editing a document or composing a strategy, take only the relevant papers to a conference room. Leave your phone and your laptop at your desk!
  • Manage Distractions – If your email inbox distracts you while you are trying to file some paperwork, turn off your monitor. If people walking by your workspace tend to distract you from a phone call, turn to face the other direction. Eliminate the distractions that are the bane of your existence!
  • Ask For Support – A handwritten sign on your door, a quick email to your colleagues or even a brief comment in the break room can help to reduce unnecessary interruptions. Let people know you can’t afford to lose focus and  you appreciate their help.
  • Take Breaks –  The best way to work often is to know when you clearly aren’t working. Structure your time so you can get up and take a walk around the building, enjoy a cup of tea, or even stretch on regular intervals.

Multitasking is a serious and dangerous myth. You can’t get more done by trying to do more all at once. Or in the words of Henry Ford:

A weakness of all human beings is trying to do too many things at once.

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