Monday, June 15, 2009

The Myth of Multi-Tasking

What are you working on?

I get asked this question a lot. From family, friends, and business associates. Each time I’m asked, I roll off a list of projects that I’ve either just started, am working on, or finishing up – sometimes up to 10 things. But a funny thing has been happening over the past several months. Whenever someone asks me that question, my answer has been the same. As in the same projects. They are all still in progress.

That led me to a startling realization. Nothing was complete. Done. Finished. Over with. In the can. Wrapped up.

How could that be? I haven’t been sitting around, twiddling my thumbs. Yet, months and months have gone by and I am still answering that question by rolling off the same list of projects. Is that possible? What is the problem? I feel like I should have been further along - if not done with some of these projects. Yet, I'm not.

Then, I took a look at the number of projects that were ongoing and tried to piece together the time I’d been spending working on each one. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that when I set aside time to work on something, I wasn’t really working only on it. I was checking email, answering calls, stopping to do a quick thing such as editing a letter or updating information on an upcoming teleclass or program, or getting sidetracked with “research” (which is a nice word for surfing the Internet!). In essence, I was multi-tasking.

Now, multitasking is a big buzz word that corporate America loves. Look at many job descriptions or job ads and you'll see that word as a descriptor of the type of person they are looking for. It means: doing more with less, getting it all done, able to handle a fast paced environment, doing many things at one time, or executing several task simultaneously.

And we have embraced this concept in all its glory.

Do you have multiple computer programs open at one time? Do you have multiple Internet pages open? Is your email always open and popping up a notify window when you receive a new message? Do you switch from project to project? Are you in meetings but working on something unrelated? Is your work constantly interrupted by people coming to your office, yet you keep working while talking to them? Do you talk on the phone while answering emails? Do you work on multiple projects during the same timeframe? Are you on a conference call or webinar and working on unrelated tasks?

These may seem like small things, but they can be very distracting and end up extending time on some projects versus saving time. And while you may get things done – they may not be done at its best, as you were not giving it your full attention.

That’s what has happened to me. While I’ve been so focused on accomplishing all my projects, I really should have been focused on finishing one project and then moving on to the next. What is my lesson learned?

Multi-tasking is a myth.

Why do I say that? Check out this quote from Dave Crenshaw:

When most people refer to multitasking they mean simultaneously performing two or more things that require mental effort and attention. Examples would include saying we’re spending time with family while were researching stocks online, attempting to listen to a CD and answering email at the same time, or pretending to listen to an employee while we are crunching the numbers. What most people refer to as multitasking, I refer to as ’switchtasking.’ Why?

Because the truth is we really cannot do two things at the same time - we are only one person with only one brain. Neurologically speaking, it has been proven to be impossible. What we are really doing is switching back and forth between two tasks rapidly, typing here, paying attention there, checking our ‘crackberry’ here, answering voicemail there back and forth back and forth at a high rate. Keep this up over a long period of time, and you have deeply ingrained habits that cause stress and anxiety and dropped responsibilities and a myriad of productivity & focus problems. It’s little wonder so many people complain of increasingly short attention spans!

Who is this man? He’s the author of The Myth of Multitasking. And I think he’s on to something. I’m going to be incorporating his strategies into the way I manage my work. That way, when someone asks me “What are you working on?” My list will be extremely short. And it will constantly change – because my projects are now being completed.

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  1. I have always believed that if a person is doing several things at once, they are not doing any one item particularly well--or at the very least, they are not doing as well as they COULD be if they were fully engaged in the task at hand. The book sounds like it would be a worthwhile read! I may just walk down to Borders and pick a copy up! :)

  2. You are so THINK you're fully engaged in what you are doing. But if you are really honest with yourself, you're not giving it 100% effort.

  3. Your blog hits the nail on the head! No wonder I get home at night and am exhausted, wondering what really I got done that day even though I was up around the crack of dawn, having slept in running shoes so that I could "go" as soon as the alarm went off! I'm going to get that book right away. "Adult A-D-D"...yeah right... more like MBS (multiple browser syndrome).