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Multi-Tasking A Myth!

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When was the last time you opened one file to work on, closed it and moved on to the next task? You don’t remember, right? At this moment, alongside reading this post, you are perhaps listening to music, browsing various open tabs, finishing a report, monitoring tweets and reading e-mail notifications.

Notice the difference between the two instances. One instance had you concentrating on just one task without any distractions, while another showed your attention being shared among several tasks simultaneously. An individual’s ability to initiate one or more tasks while doing another task is multi-tasking.

David Crenshaw, author of “The Myth of Multitasking” and Walter Kim who authored “The Autumn of the Multitaskers”, say that multi-tasking or switch tasking is not a very efficient way of working. It slows down our thinking process as the brain attempts to perform more than one task at a time, with others lag behind during information processing. In short, multi-tasking makes an individual less productive, costs the Company precious time and gives us the individual the feeling that he will not be able to finish work.

To lessen multi-tasking, here are some suggestions from experts:

  • Create a list of things to do and prioritize them according to their importance.
  • Schedule time to meet people. Let others know that you don’t like to be disturbed at all times.
  • Use a planner or calendar to schedule important tasks or meetings.
  • Set aside specific time to check mail, tweets and other social networking sites. List time to do activities to avoid distraction.
  • If you are speaking to someone, give him your full attention. Avoid working on another task or engaging in another conversation at that time.
  • Turn off your mobile, e-mail or chat programs, if your work demands your complete attention.

To be frank, I find it difficult to multi-task, especially at work with jobs that require my full attention. At home, multi-tasking isn’t easy, but it’s doable. Multi-tasking has its share of negatives, such as:

  • The quality of work is compromised as one’s attention is divided amongst various tasks.
  • The brain’s ability to filter relevant information is slowed down due to interspersing of irrelevant information.
  • Distraction is the highest risk to multi-taskers.
  • Switching back and forth to doing various tasks takes time, so one takes longer to accomplish things.
  • It is damaging to one’s work performance, productivity and interpersonal relationships, both professionally and personally.

Instead, create an environment of focus. Distractions and clutter divert your attention from the task at hand. A little persistence and commitment can get you of the multi-tasking rut. Slow down, do one thing at a time and feel effective and satisfied.

Do share your thoughts in the same.

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  • martin hogan

    One’s ability to execute multiple tasks depends upon one’s intelligence and an ability to co-ordinate activities.

    What is a myth is that everyone can do it – some people can run a mile in 4 minutes, some are dyslexic.

    Using the analogy of a computer, it can only perform one task at a time but if it is designed to do it, it can switch between tasks, share already executed data and appear to multi-task; some people even call their computers ‘clever’.

    Whatever you are doing, learn to manage your time and work within your capabilities but also learn ways to perform better.

    regards

  • Every project manager with several on-going projects and every supervisor with several subordinates is a multi-tasker. This may not be an efficient way of working, but in Government engineering, for example, it is the only way and certainly not a myth.

  • Selda Mansur

    Every person has a unique way of doing things. Multi-focusing might be a skill that some people have. Might be related to each individual’s attention span? Or to their ability to delegate.

    Multi-tasking works for me. Keeps me alert. I welcome “distractions”, and look at them as a chance to view whatever I am focusing on from a distance for a short while, and then re-focus with new vigour or sometimes slow down, or delegate. Depends: sometimes, I choose to ignore distractions, too.

    “Do less if necessary, do better” approach, works for me, too. Why should I “slow down, do one thing at a time and feel effective and satisfied.” I feel and am told that I am effective as a multi-tasker. I feel satisfied, too.

    “In short, multi-tasking makes an individual less productive, costs the Company precious time and gives us the individual the feeling that he will not be able to finish work.” Hmm, an over-sweeping generalization, perhaps?

    Multi-taskers of the world, unite/chat online/listen to music/read an article/keep an eye on your online calendar/visualize your holiday plans/talk on the phone/think about what to cook for dinner/feel happy about your child’s success at school, all at the same time. Yes, you can and do. Effectively and in a most satisfying way, too. -OK, that list might be an exaggeration :)

  • Multi-tasking is a crock. Always has been, always will be.

    Participants in my leadership sessions have heard me say this, and I’ll repeat it here: “I don’t care about who you are, how much money you make, what your title is, or your Mensa membership… you can only do one thing at a time.”

    Just one. You can have a whole bunch of things in various stages of incomplete, you can have several things waiting for your attention, and you can have things so teed up that you FEEL as though you can move near-seamlessly from one task to the next.

    But you’re still moving from one task to the next.

    As leaders, this is an essential line of reasoning. If we’re constantly distracted, thinking we’re actually doing several things at one time, all the while simply screwing up things en masse, we need to realize that leadership is about doing it right, not doing it all.

    Focus on doing what you’re doing — you can focus on the next thing when you’re done with this thing. I gotta tell you, it just doesn’t seem like this is cutting-edge thinking…

    Recently on Twitter, Guy Kawasaki posted a link to the “Dumb Little Man” website, where there was a perfect article about this new movement called “uni-tasking.”

    You have got to be bagging me here… doing one thing at a time, and doing it well, is now this trendy little thing called “uni-tasking??” What consultant or academic dreamed up that tasty morsel??

    Yeah, OK, whatever… just as long as multitasking dies its appropriate death, I guess I can tolerate some ridiculous fad-focused vernacular so that others can embrace its demise.

    But that’s just me…

    KB

  • As a new social media manager at a large University, I feel the effects of almost constant multi-tasking. I used to believe it was the only way to get anything done. Now I am beginning to see that counter-productivity of having 20 windows open at once. I move on to the next thing so quickly that many times I don’t remember something I got started on earlier. I also feel like I’m getting nothing done. I’m going to start using a spreadsheet to keep track of my tasks. If I write them down when I start, I might me more motivated to focus on that one thing and finish it, and I will also have a record of what I started. Not being a very structured person, this is going to be difficult. But I think it will be beneficial in the long run. Thanks for the post and all the thoughtful comments!

  • DJ

    I believe the most productive type of multi tasking is when you fill in the blanks of empty time – like checking email while something from a different program is printing. Or getting up from your desk for an errand while your computer reboots; moving to a different screen to accomplish something while another screen in finishing. For me, it’s not necessarily about doing several things at the same time, but is more like accomplishing several things in the same time frame by moving back and forth between them, while each are at different stages, until one by one, all are finished. It keeps you from sitting there doing nothing while you wait for a program to finish or a printer to finish. If you’ve ever been in customer service when you’ve had call after call coming in, you may have to go to the next call before you’ve finished the work from the previous one. You find ways to “juggle” so you can go back and finish one thing then jump to the next, so you don’t get terribly behind. You also learn to move fast, prioritize well, and make the most of every second. I think productive multi tasking is more akin to “juggling” your priorities and the workload more than anything else and that multi tasking got a bad rep recently because that was misunderstood. You can’t do more than one thing at a time but you can go back and forth depending on what becomes “hottest” next. For me, multi tasking is about re-prioritizing and juggling those priorities and filling in any empty spots of time than it is about doing several things at the same time.

  • Kelly Plamp

    I really agree with DJ. I think juggling and multi-tasking are the same thing. It’s just that “multi-tasking” sounds really cool and juggling sounds comic so we choose the former to describe our actions.

    Many people believe multitasking is a sign of intelligence, accomplishment, and superiority. Therefore, attacking it in negative terms is bound to make people defensive, not draw them to your point of view. (See Asma’s earlier post on criticism.)

    My work is intellectually absorbing, so when I am working on something I become completely immersed, and thus rarely multi-task. However, I do share DJ’s strategy — although I’m totally immersed, if I need to print a document, or just “come up for air” for a few minutes, or need a comfort break, I check email, pop out a memo or two, set up appointments, etc.

    For Kelly: I am not a structured person, either. After years of experimenting, I find a good old Franklin planner is the best for me. I find using a spreadsheet, or even task management software, or Outlook, turns out to be just another distraction, as I have to switch computer programs to update it. However, with my planner open on my desk, I can easily jot down new tasks as they arise, mark progress, update schedules and appointments. And I have my daily schedule of appointments right in front of me all the time. It’s also great if, while working, a thought or idea enters my head about some other project, either personal or professional — I just pick up my pencil, jot it down for later, and go back to my computer work. At some unstructured point in my day when I decide to take time for it — for example, I hit a good breaking point in my work — I go back to my planner and act on the ideas I jotted down earlier: either carry it out, add it to my tasks, draw a line through it, etc.

    Kelly

  • The ultimate in multitasking is playing with your blackberry while attempting to drive an automobile. Neither is all that difficult when done on their own. Together they equal disaster.

    If people cannot perform the simplest of tasks in tandem, what makes people believe they can be effective when multitasking in difficult activities? The sign of intelligence is knowing your limitations, then designing your working structure around your strengths.

  • Jacqueline M. Walters

    Multitasking makes an employee more stress out and less effective, it fosters disenchanted and disengaged employees. Office equipments to has a life span too, it often malfunction from over load. There is no such thing as a perfect human being, to accomplish multitasking.

  • Multi-tasking is a skill that we develop because modern life requires it. True, some of us are better at it than others, but it should be used selectively and not as a normal mode of operation. People who believe themselves to be fantastic and unapologetic multi-taskers are often missing a few EQ points–emotional intelligence and social skills. They fail to realize the social and business value of providing someone (client, family member) with total and undivided attention. Multi-tasking helps you to cope with a flood of incoming tasks and stimulus; used properly it can help you to move forward and stay caught up. Used inappropriately this method of working feeds into poor communication dynamics and causes dangerous distractions.