No such thing as multitasking

It was a perfect spring evening. Dinner was over, dishes done and the daughter tucked in for the night. A conversation with the wife ensues. Then the phone rings. Turns out the caller had the very answer we needed to put us out of our long distance calling miseries.  Grrr… Looking to resume the conversation after hanging up nosily we discovered, to our dismay, that we had forgotten what we were talking about. More grrr….

Turns out that we are not alone experiencing this phenomenon, err, amnesia. It happens all the time. I also discovered that creating amnesia is part of the training imparted to hypnotists. One of the easiest ways to create amnesia is to interrupt someone in the middle of whatever they were doing. This got me thinking. If this amnesia happened during a stress free and relaxed environment, would it happen in a workplace. 

Sure it does. Just think of the implications!

I have been advocating single tasking at work for a while now. This experience was a nail in the coffin. There is no such thing as multitasking. Humans are incapable at multitasking. We only task switch. And so do computers. The difference is that computers can task switch at a much faster rate to create an illusion of multitasking. I’ll use the term multitasking and task switching interchangeably for the reminder of this post.

In addition to creating short term amnesia, multitasking introduces delays. Look at the adjacent image. We need to complete three tasks, each needing 10 days to complete. By single tasking, we can sequentially complete each task in 10 days from their respective start dates. Multitasking extends the duration of each tasks. It is a throughput killer. Moreover, starting and stopping tasks means you need to disengage from a preceding task and engage into the succeeding task. This process takes time. The more you switch tasks, the more time you lose.

If multitasking is bad, then why do companies promote it? Look at any job description today and chances are that you will find a line in there that goes like this, “… Ability to multitask and work on multiple projects at the same time …” This is probably a good time to clarify that I do not mean listening to music while driving, eating while watching the television, etc. as multitasking. When I talk about multitasking I mean working on two or more complex tasks that each require concentration to ensure quality.

With employers clamouring for multitasking abilities, is it realistic to expect this trend to spiral south? No. But what one can do is to manage time better.

Limit work-in-progress (WIP)

It seems counter intuitive, but limiting work-in-progress can improve throughput. You are limited to eight working hours per day on average. While it may not be possible for you to focus on just one thing and get it out of the way, limiting your work-in-progress to three or less items will go a long way in increasing your focus and hence your throughput.

Judiciously use NO

If you find your plate filling up with work faster than you can complete them, it is time to push back. Delegating work can also help you focus on what is important. Demands on your time can come from all directions. Judiciously deciding when to take on more work and when to say NO can go a long way to increase your throughput.

Getting away

I have discovered a few locations in my office that I can work undisturbed. For example, I developed an algorithm to dispatch trucks in our fleet at one of these locations. Another trick is to book a conference room to yourself for an hour or two to get away. You will be surprised to see your productivity increase when you are left to focus without interruptions.

These are my top three methods to ensure I do not multitask. What’s yours?

It took my wife and I a good 45 minutes to remember what we were talking about before that darn phone rang. Stop multitasking – it only increases your stress levels with a strong possibility of things falling through the cracks, in addition to costing time and money.

Photo Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/profile/wolliballa

4 thoughts on “No such thing as multitasking

  1. Hi Charan,

    Nice article. I completely agree with the content. Even I try my best to not multitask and finish my task at 100% level before working on another task.

    However, there’s one thing I would like to highlight. In your case, the phone rang and you had to switch your task from your discussion with your wife to answering that phone call. I assume, in this case, answering the phone call was mandatory for you. In the same way, similar situations are going to arise in a company too. Some mandatory disturbances!

    How should that issue be resolved? I think prioritizing is one way to go about it. Even with that there would be some loss of efficiency in completing the tasks, since we ended up multitasking, no matter what.

    I would love to get your feedback on this. Please let me know if you have any doubts on my query.

    Best Regards,
    Rishi

    1. Each case is different. At work, you could have a “non-interrupt time” and indicate to people you are not available for interruptions. Make it known to your teams that your interruption time is only between X and Y. I find that works in most situations where there’s some level of agile maturity.

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