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 Ė 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.)