Many people pride themselves on their ability to multi-task. The problem is that humans are very bad at multi-tasking. I was at a software conference where a presenter was trying to illustrate this through a simple exercise that went like this:
Get 5 to 10 people to stand in a circle and ask them to go through the following sequences: First the alphabet, then count by 3s to 36, then count by 6s to 72. Each person says one item for the sequence and the person on their right says the next. This is pretty easy to do. It only takes a few minutes to go through all the different sequences when they are being done one at a time.
Next you do the same exercise, but this time simulating multi tasking. As you go around the circle working your way through the sequence, one person will instruct the group to switch between sequences. So now it might go something like: A, B, C, (switch to 3s), 3, (switch to alphabet), D, E, F, (switch to 6s), 6, 12, (switch to 3s), 6, 9, 12 . . .
This is much, MUCH more difficult because it requires you to multi-task and switch context among the different sequences. You can do it if you try hard enough, but it is very frustrating and slow. If you had to choose between being on a team that was switching among the sequences or a team that was going to recite each sequence one at a time, which would you choose? Which would you choose if there were some type of prize for finishing first?
Obviously the team that isn’t multi-tasking is going to finish much faster than the one that is. But for some reason, we try to multi-task on our normal work regardless of how inefficient it is. Culturally, we’ve come to accept multi-tasking as a badge of honor instead of what it really is–a way to be massively inefficient while appearing to be busy.
If you work for someone else who is constantly asking you to do this and then do that, how can you help but multi-task? One simple solution is to write whatever you are working on currently on a whiteboard. If your boss asks you to work on something else, just confirm that they want you to stop working on your current task and do what they are asking. If they just told you task X is the highest priority and come in now saying that task Y is the most important, make sure they understand that working on Y means stopping on X. Sometimes they may still want you to stop and work on Y, but just having that conversation helps point out that you can only work on one thing at a time. Simply instructing you to do more things isn’t going to get anything done any faster. Instead, it will just slow things down.
I think this is spot on – great post. The science is quite clear that multitasking makes people less effective, AND less efficient, AND is more cognitively taxing than “single-tasking.”
It’s one thing to do know that multitasking is bad, and another to actively avoid it in the office, which is why I really like your whiteboard tip.
Thanks for sharing
Ewen Munro says
Good post, Mark. You’re right, we can only focus on one thing at a time, which simply means we just have to block off time to focus on one task and then block off time to focus on another. Simple as that. ;) #keepgrowing #keepcreating