More on multitasking

May 21 2006 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

My column on multitasking received more response than any column I've written in quite a while. Ninety-nine percent of the feedback was pure agreement. It wasn't until several readers pointed me in the direction of Max's comments that I was even aware he'd taken issue with my column.

Frankly, after reading his thoughts, Max makes some excellent points. I agree wholeheartedly that our evolution of communication should not be stymied. Without e-mail, we wouldn't have anywhere near the levels of effectiveness and efficiency we currently enjoy. (On a personal note, my 74-year-old dad hears from me a whole lot more now that he's online and using e-mail!)

So, in no way do I advocate eliminating e-mail, nor do I believe that multitasking can ever be absent from the workplace. Admittedly, the title of my column may have been confusing. To clarify, the main thrust was to point out "how" multitasking and e-mail waste time. It's simply a matter of how too much of something can become a negative.

For example, I certainly advocate washing one's clothes, but if one washed every shirt in the closet three times a day that would be an example of "how" washing clothes wastes time.

While I don't know of anyone so irrational with regard to laundry, I do have plenty of clients ask me how to better handle the e-mail monster. They want tips on how to be better time managers.

After a little investigation it's little wonder these people view e-mail as a monster. When I visit their office I watch their thought processes get interrupted by the incessant little "ding" of Microsoft Outlook telling them a new e-mail has arrived. Even more amazing is how often these people actually stop what they're doing and open the e-mail, even if it's low priority and has nothing to do with their task at hand.

Essentially, instead of being proactive and responsible using e-mail as a tool, they've become like Pavlov's dog, salivating every time they hear their e-mail bell.

How to handle the e-mail monster? Unless your job is similar to that of a stockbroker in which the timeliness of getting information is paramount, turn off the e-mail program and get some work done that makes money for your company. If something is so urgent that we can't wait two or three hours for a response, we all know how to pick up the phone.

Julie Morgenstern's book, Never Check E-Mail in the Morning, is probably the most practical book on the market for those who want to improve their time management. Her arguments are sound, and her high-profile clients have certainly benefited from her advice: Focus first on the revenue line!

As far as multitasking goes, the ubiquitous population of Pavlov's dog clones was simply the perfect example of how people try to multitask in the workplace: Genuinely trying to be effective and efficient, yet often unknowingly being the opposite.

I'm not giving my opinion here. Up until a month ago I was a gung-ho multi-task advocate. But the research is in. Here are just a few web sites to check out (warning: some links are really boring research and academic writing):

For the quick review:

At Harvard University, research psychologist Yuhong Jiang says "Extensive research has revealed that people have surprisingly stubborn limitations on their ability to carry out multiple tasks at the same time. When a cognitive bottleneck is tied up by one task, the second task has to wait until the bottleneck is released."

In one of her own research projects, Jiang studied students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (no mental slouches, them MIT-types). The task wasn't too tough. They were asked to identify a letter and a color simultaneously. Most of us would sit back and say "that's easy – and it's more efficient to do both at the same time." I certainly would. But I'd be wrong. It took those MIT students twice as long trying to do both at once as when they did each task separately.

At the website (see link above), you can read that "In a study that looked at the amounts of time lost when people switched repeatedly between two tasks of varying complexity and familiarity, it was found that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another."

Can some people multitask and function well? Certainly. And at times, multi-tasking can be an absolute necessity. Can some people multitask and "think" they function well -- but don't? Without a doubt. As a certified behavioral analyst I know that a certain percentage of the population thrives on the adrenaline from juggling a dozen tasks at once. But I also know that many of these same people only think they are being more efficient.

I certainly don't make this stuff up.

And I certainly don't want to discount Max's valid points.

And I also don't want the main points of my column to be misconstrued.

Max and I may agree to disagree on a few points. But I believe the research, and when I see my clients enjoying more productivity (and more sanity) by applying these principles, I'll keep encouraging them to stay the course.

(Note: Normally I don't respond to public comments about my columns, but this being a blog and Max being a fellow columnist on this site, I'm making a rare exception.)


Older Comments

I get several hundred email a day. If I stopped to read each one when it arrived, I'd never get any work done at all. But then if I don't respond, I get even more asking me whether I've read the first mail.

Too much email creates an insane vicious circle, just like having too many meetings. And all it means is that you end up doing 'real' work out of office hours.

Steve Jones London

Yes, I think the issue is not whether we should have IM or email but whether we control them or they control us. In a time management workshop I did, an attendee told me that her PR firm boss had instructed clients that they weren't to contact the creative team between 9 am and noon because the team was busy doing great work for them. The strategy worked, the client was happy (and felt well treated) and the team had their boss defending their time. Another side effect was that some issues disappeared or were solved another way when the client had to wait until afternoon. No more mindless, irrelevant, just-because-I-can emails.

Claire Tompkins

Clearly this has hit a nerve! The point I make clearly is that viewing it necessary to ration use of communication devices is not an effective way of improving effectiveness.

There are undoubtedly studies that conclude (not surprisingly) that switching from one task to another incurs costs but this is not what I argue against – although the evidence is not as one sided as either the comments (I can be happily foolish since I prize and defend my right to so be and also the likelihood that today's foolishness will be tomorrow's orthodoxy) or the original article assert.

Flow (uninterrupted) can be beneficial (the source of happiness according to some) and so called anti-flow (as multi-tasking has been described) can be detrimental however it is equally the case that variety can be healing and monotony damaging.

Some people handle multi-tasking better than others – some move tasks from full to part focus and back again as a way of stimulating sub-conscious creativity (think of the way we keep going with a conversation when we have forgotten something and then suddenly remember it) or understand that to multi-task is to simultaneously sow, tend, and harvest multiple crops that would not be helped by us sitting over them.

That doesn't mean that slack is not important, or focused activity is not vital. They both are and I have, and continue, to advocate the need for both but do not agree that the tools of communication should be so categorically rationed as if there is only one best way for everyone in the workplace.

My preferences (I can be really authoritative for my experience!) vary but include the brain rush of doing many things fast in a way that is interlaced. The limitations of time appear to help my mode of working to produce better work but only sometimes – often I move between mono-tasking for completion and multi-tasking for meditation (allowing ideas to sit and distil or ferment).

The 'conscious mind can only consider a few facts at a time. And so with complex decisions the unconscious appears to do a better job' (paraphrased from Brian Walsh's book on Unleashing Your Brilliance) It's a kind of thinking without thinking while also doing while thinking and doing without thinking that allows for at least three layers of task completion that I use to great effect.

Over 95% of what we know about how the brain learns and operates has been learned over the past decade so it seems premature to simply cast aside multi-tasking because of some evidence against it, prejudice against it, or a personal preference to avoid it. The younger you are the more likely you are to have developed technological multi-tasking skills (although some people are simply better at it than others) – skills that seem less effective only to those who don't see how it's possible. It hardly seems fair to limit others by your own preferences. Are you sure that people are always more effective if they are locked inside their offices? Or are they simply more efficient? Or do they find new ways of wasting time? Can an interruption help the creative process?

Of course we have to manage them and make active choices and no we don't want the junk emails. But multi-tasking is another one of those things (like stress, laziness, arrogance, moodiness, tantrums, gossip, overt emotion, aggression, or anti-sociality) that should not be written off summarily as a bad thing. They are just tools, relative characteristics with labels that can be very useful given the right circumstance and need. We need spies to be good liars, sportsmen to be emotional, stress helps with memory and with activity (until it becomes distress at which point it debilitates), while being antisocial is linked to a mild form of psychopathic behaviour that gives many excellent leaders their ability to move people forward.

Enough for now… but it's worth keeping an open mind.

Max McKeown

Sorry I'm in the middle of something and can't respond right now.