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Multitasking is a myth

I was fascinated by a recent episode of Frontline, which dealt with technology and its tendency to encourage multitasking.  Students in prestigious colleges like MIT boasted about their ability to multi-task.  You’d see these students sitting in class with open laptops, surfing the web, checking Facebook, and sending text messages – all while “listening” to a lecture.  The professors lamented that students are not learning as much as they were 10 years ago, and that they had to drop the level of testing and assignments.  This isn’t because students are less intelligent; it’s because they’re multitasking.

I’ve heard countless people extol the benefits of multitasking, and yet I personally struggle when doing more than one thing at a time.  Then I read an eye-opening book called “The Myth of Multitasking,” by Dave Crenshaw.  The author lays out, in a very simple storytelling fashion, why multitasking is harmful, and demonstrates why multitasking is, in fact, a myth.  He starts with a simple exercise, which you can try right now:

Get a piece of paper and write the sentence “Multitasking is worse than a lie.”  Every letter you write, you should immediately write a number just below it, starting with 1 and going through to the number 27 as you reach the last letter in the sentence.  So you write “M” and then 1, you write “u” and the below it 2 and so forth.  You keep this up until last letter of the sentence and you time yourself.

It took longer than you thought, huh?  Most people take around 60 seconds.  Now try writing the sentence in full followed by the numbers 1 to 27 in full.  That took a lot less time.  (Most took 30 seconds – half as long). Why?  Because the first time, you switched between two tasks, but the second time, you focused on one task at a time.  The myth of multitasking is that we don’t actually multitask…we switch.  The human brain cannot actually focus on two things at the same time – it can merely switch its attention quickly from one task to the other, which appears to be multitasking but isn’t.  Switching is a very inefficient way for your brain to get things done.  Why?  Because every time you switch to another task, your brain has to refocus and figure out where it left off.  This takes extra time, and that lost time is inefficient.  So multitasking is actually LESS efficient than doing one thing at a time.

Now apply that to our technology.  Say you’re writing a proposal, and your e-mail bings.  You check it.  Then your cell phone goes off with a text message.  You text back.  You notice you have another message on your phone.  Finally, you go back to the proposal… now where were you?  It takes a while to get back into the flow, to pick up where you left off.  Once you finally get going again, you get another e-mail.  It takes far longer to complete this task when you allow all these interruptions.  Technology may enable us to be always connected, but if we’re not careful, that can also mean always distracted.

How do you deal with multitasking?

The answer, of course, is that you manage your technology.  Don’t be afraid to turn it off, or to schedule time to use it so that you can focus on your other tasks.  Estimate how long tasks take, and schedule them accordingly, then make adjustments as you discover how long at actually takes to get something done without stopping to check your e-mail.  Remove distractions, such as turning off the noise that incoming e-mails make, or even (gasp!) turning off your cell phone.  Schedule a particular time of day to check and return e-mail and cell phone messages.  Leave a voicemail message that says, “I’m not available now, but your call is important.  Leave a message and I’ll get back to you at 3 pm.”  People will relax because they can count on return call at a certain time.  Then, when you follow through, you’ll seem reliable and organized!  My time management tricks include writing out the next day’s tasks at the end of the current day, which allows me to create a schedule that I’m more likely to stick to.  I also don’t check e-mail first thing in the morning; instead, I work on one important task, THEN check my e-mail.  I start the day with a feeling of accomplishment, instead of feeling like I need to catch up.

For a business, being constantly connected is a great thing – but it doesn’t have to mean being constantly “on.”  Turning off cell phones in meetings is a courtesy to those in the meeting with you.  But turning your cell phone off when you’re working on an important project is just as beneficial, because the project gets your full attention and that’s good for everyone.

Happy monotasking!

Watch Dave Crenshaw talk about multitasking:


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