The Great Multitasking Myth

Jeff Davidson
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On the surface, multitasking appears to be an effective way to handle a plethora of issues that compete for your attention. It seems intuitive that if you can handle effectively both A and B concurrently, you are achieving a productivity gain as well as notable time saving. The fallacy is believing that the human brain can easily double-up and triple-up on activities with no loss of focus, attention, or effectiveness.

The classic example of multitasking is driving along the highway while speaking on a cell phone, even if it's a hands-free model. Both activities compete for the brain's precious sharp attention. Thus, neither activity is executed nearly as effectively as one could do by engaging in a single activity at a time. Further, studies have reported that driving while talking on a cell phone, hands free or not, results in an accident rate four times that of normal, equal to someone who is driving while intoxicated.

"Wait", you might say. Surely there are some activities for which it is okay to multitask. Yes, there are. You're not likely to fall off the couch while eating if you have the television on at the same time. The difference between eating and watching television, and driving and speaking on a cell phone, is a huge order of magnitude. It's easy enough to eat and watch a show, listen to music, talk to someone else, or even read, if you pace your bites. Given that there is no heavy machinery in motion, the everyday act of eating while you engage in some other activity is a perfectly acceptable, low-level form of multitasking.

The Routine and Familiar
In the workplace, for certain types of tasks, especially familiar tasks, multitasking is acceptable. You can run a print job while you work with a file on your screen. As long as the printer has adequate toner, and the paper feeds through as designed, there is little harm in multitasking in this manner. Nevertheless, for whatever task you are attempting to handle, the fact that you are running a print job at the same time is likely to diminish your overall effectiveness. The loss in mental acuity will be relatively minor and you might not even be aware of it.

In the course of the work day, each of us multitasks several times, often without even thinking about it. If we traced our actions, we would see that for virtually all of the tasks that we executed effectively, we either stopped multitasking and focused on the task at hand, or continued to multitask because we were so thoroughly familiar with what was required of us, that applying ourselves wasn't taxing.

The real risk of work-related multitasking is that, done often enough, we never quite retreat to that mental space in which we can offer our best concentration and hence, our best work.

Repeatedly, the Wrong Message
If you work for a multitasker, you might find yourself frequently trying to handle an array of assignments doled out to you in random fashion: This type of boss is less likely to engage in planning that facilitates effective dispensation of assignments. If you are a multitasker and supervise others, you likely find yourself frequently in start-and-stop situations—your staff workers have too much to do, then too little to do, all as a result of your inability to sit quietly in a chair and plot out your work, and their work.

Since we each face multiple priorities at work, it's easy to equate managing multiple priorities with multitasking. Actually, the larger and more important the task, the more vital it is for you to focus on it intently. Practice the art of doing one thing at a time. When you've finished the project or have taken it as far as you can, then and only then, turn to the second most important task facing you.

As you proceed throughout your day and work week, mastering the art of doing one thing at a time is the most productive way to proceed. Occasionally, yes, you can multitask on those issues that represent the routine and familiar and that carry little penalty for any lost time on the trail. It's in your best interest however, to forsake multitasking and its false promise as you pursue the multiple priorities that a person of your education, background, training, and level of authority is responsible for handling.

About the author:
Jeff Davidson, The Work-Life Balance Expert®, is founder of the Breathing Space Institute in Raleigh, N.C. He wrote Breathing Space and Simpler Living, recorded 92 audio programs, and created 24 iPhone apps. Visit:


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