Multitasking, marijuana, managing?

Sep 21 2009 by Bob Selden Print This Article

How's your "To Do" list progressing today? Do you even have one – or have you dismissed it as old technology? Well, low-tech it might be, but recent research suggests it might be time to give the old "To Do" list a comeback opportunity.

You may recall (and for those still using them) that the fundamental principle behind "To Do" lists, is that you prioritise the list of tasks, then work on each one until the list is complete. Focus, concentration and one task at a time, are the cornerstones of a good "To Do" list proponent.

By comparison, in today's fast moving world we seem to do many things at once. For instance, as you read this article you may also be texting a friend or colleague, talking on the phone, or even checking emails on your Blackberry. A true multitasker!

If this describes you, the recent findings may come as a shock. Scientists at Stanford University have found that people who multitask are far less effective than those who concentrate on one thing at a time.

Professor Clifford I. Nass, one of the study team, put it this way, "Multitaskers were just lousy at everything." So, when you multitask, it seems as if you're doing a lot of work, but you're not doing most (or any) of it well.

However, multitasking in fact is a misnomer. When we talk about multitasking, we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention and more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention. In fact despite its sophistication, the brain can only concentrate on one task at a time.

Edward Hallowell, psychiatrist and author of CrazyBusy, describes multitasking as, "a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously."

Because the brain can only focus on one thing at a time, so-called "multitasking" forces the brain to take shorter and shorter time on unlike tasks, thus reducing our effectiveness.

Multitasking may even be affecting how we plan our work. Frank Patrick of consulting firm Focused Performance, suggests that when it comes to say, working on two projects at the same time, "many of our project plans could very well be twice as long as they need to be."

He further suggests that multitasking may well start from the allocation of resources to projects, "The idea of assigning half or a quarter of one head count to a project is a good way to start down the slippery slope of multitasking."

Studies at the University of Michigan confirm Patrick's assertions. They go further to say that, "People lose time when they have to switch from one task to another and the amount of time lost increases with the complexity of the tasks."

In addition to reduced effectiveness, there may also be other downsides to multitasking. A study conducted at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London by Dr. Glenn Wilson way back in 2005, found that "Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ - more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana."

Wilson went on to say that, "Those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night's sleep."

Now, there have been many technological advances since 2005 that have allowed us to "multitask" more – I wonder what that has done to our IQ?

So what's the message here for managers?

  • First, it's not only legitimate, but highly productive if people turn off all electronic devices during meetings, so that they can concentrate on what needs to be achieved. Your introductory words could be something like, "Who'd like to reduce their IQ by 10%?"
  • It would seem that the time honoured time-management technique of putting like-tasks together, prioritising and taking one task at a time, has a proven basis in scientific research. Time to start the "To Do" list again?
  • Perhaps encouraging your people to do things such as their emails in specific blocks of time might be an option. One manager I know recently reached an agreement with his boss – they agreed to answer emails by 10AM each morning – if anything else came up during the day that was urgent, they would phone, not text nor email.
  • Give people the opportunity to "check out" from constant media input such as phone, text, email – particularly out of office hours.
  • Think about the allocation of resources, particularly to projects – is this likely to affect the performance of your people? How could these resources be better allocated to allow people to focus?
  • Then of course, there's the open-plan office – so essential to the economic well being of the organisation and so useful for staff interaction! Perhaps making people aware of the downsides of multitasking and discussing alternative strategies in staff meetings, might be a start.
  • Finally, there's the great feeling of satisfaction one gets from completing a task. Salespeople, and sales managers in particular, have traditionally been very good at recognising and appreciating results - both theirs and their people. How could you encourage recognition and appreciation of completed tasks with your people?

No doubt as you've read this article, you've thought of some other things that might reduce both yours and your peoples' dependence on multitasking. As for me? I can now tick "article on multitasking" off my to do list. Now to the next one...

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.

Older Comments

i think multitasking is an addiction

tina kelowna

Indeed, multitasking is a myth. It is task-switching, if anything. We spend a great deal of our time dividing our attention when what we really need is a more solid relationship with time itself to identify what is truly important to us. So close those windows and unplug every once in a while to avoid information overload. Clarity of thinking requires mini-respites throughout the day, not more input into an already overflowing brain.

Activity, after all, does not equal productivity.

Best regards, Warm regards, Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World (St. Martin's Press, Fall 2009)

Christine Louise Hohlbaum Munich, Germany