How multitasking and e-mail waste time

Apr 28 2006 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

Why is it that some people get so much done in a day while others operate at a hectic pace with little to show for it? Strange as it may seem, the answer may lie in too much multitasking.

During a recent training session I listened to a group of middle managers talk about how their days always felt chaotic. Bouncing from task to task seemed to be the norm as they struggled to meet deadlines.

This was déjà vu: I've heard this in workshops for years. The dilemma of finding effective time management techniques appears to be eternal. The problem, in my opinion, is that time management is like an inkblot: What is defined as an effective technique by one person may be deemed totally useless by another.

As the training session continued we concluded that no magic bullet exists. No single technique works for everybody. But I did point out that for all its hype in the 1980s and '90s, multitasking has proven to be highly overrated. In fact, it's been proven that bouncing back and forth between tasks actually lowers effectiveness and productivity.

Bouncing back and forth between tasks actually lowers effectiveness and productivity
I first became aware of this through a conversation with Robert Croker, Ed.D., chair of the Human Resource Training and Development department at Idaho State University. Croker, who is certified in brain-based learning, says that the brain is not designed for multitasking.

"It's a common misconception is that a brain is like a computer," Croker says. "A computer is designed to multitask. A human brain is not designed to function optimally in a multitask environment."

The myths of multitasking are further discussed in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and in the science journal NeuroImage. Research appearing in these publications has found that each time a person switches back and forth between tasks, the brain goes through several time-consuming activities, including:

  • a selection process for choosing a new activity,
  • turning off the mental rules needed to do the first task,

  • turning on the mental rules needed to do the second task,
  • orienting itself to the conditions currently surrounding the new task

Research indicates that jumping back and forth between tasks can take four times longer to accomplish them - simply due to the time required for switching gears.

Furthermore, research shows that the quality of completed tasks becomes severely diminished when trying to do two tasks simultaneously. Just think of how effective you are at making driving decisions while you're talking on your mobile phone and you'll know what they mean.

It's turning out that maximum productivity is more likely to be a result of better planning.

One of my favorite time management tips often causes people to shudder, but it creates an excellent environment for better planning. The tip comes from workplace-organizer guru Julie Morgenstern, and it's simply this: Never check e-mail first thing in the morning.

Never check e-mail first thing in the morning
Before you write off this technique as hare-brained, consider the results discovered by one group of managers who squawked pretty loudly when I first suggested this to them.

After writing off the idea as "not possible," the powers of the heavens must have snickered when the group's e-mail server went down the following Monday. It wasn't just the morning, checking and sending e-mail became "not possible" for an entire day.

When I met with these managers later that week the team's leader proclaimed, "We got so much work done this past Monday— I think we should make every Monday to be 'no e-mail day.'"

Those words would make Morgenstern proud.

But it doesn't have to be that extreme. The idea is to simply set aside time at the beginning of your day and evaluate the work before you. Then ask yourself: What will bring the biggest financial return for your efforts? If you could put only one thing on your to-do list and still be productive, what would that one thing be?

Morgenstern recommends taking the time to get that profit-generating work done—and she means "done" as in task accomplished - before switching your mental gears to check e-mail.

Think about it: When it comes to getting sidetracked, e-mail is a major culprit. The work that makes you money should come first.

But even after completing your most important task, stopping to check e-mail five, eight, twelve times a day requires an awful lot of brain switching - a.k.a wasted time. With this knowledge, it's easy to see why Morgenstern recommends establishing no more than four regular times that we check e-mail throughout the day.

One highly effective workplace I know of established a policy to check e-mail only three times a day. At 11:00 a.m. so they can dedicate an hour to written correspondence before lunch; at 1:00 p.m. to reply to any follow-up responses; and again at 4:00 p.m. so they can make adjustments to their next day's schedule.

They tell clients and vendors up front of this policy so everyone knows what to expect.

Interestingly, employees at this company that fudge on this policy and check e-mail throughout the day are not as productive - and can't seem to figure out how the other people get so much more done.

Bottom line, multitasking has been proven to make us less effective, not more. And although e-mail can be a huge time saver, it can also be a huge time-waster if we become its slave instead of its master.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. He’s also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence