For most of my career, multitasking, the ability to perform
multiple activities at once, has been regarded as an asset. Managers have
encouraged their staff to multitask, and IT leaders frequently speak of
employees who are effective multitaskers in a positive light.

However, recent research into how the brain functions
suggests that multitasking isn’t the asset we once thought, and that those
long-admired employees and peers are more likely better at focusing and
shifting on single tasks, rather than possessing some super-human ability to
simultaneously perform multiple tasks. Previously, the brain was regarded much
like the processor in our computers and phones. You could allocate a percentage
of the processor’s overall capacity to a task, and the task would be completed commensurate
with the allocation it received. If a particular task took one minute using
100% of the processor, you could do two similar tasks in two minutes, since
each would receive 50% of the computing capacity.

Multitasking in the

Unlike our computers, the human brain’s capacity to process
degrades significantly the more tasks it’s trying to manage. Rather than a 50%
reduction in performance when trying to do two similar tasks at once, the
reduction tends to be more in the area of 80-95%.

For a ready example of how ineffective we are at
multitasking, do some “field research” during your next conference call. Even a
task as banal as triaging email or playing Solitaire significantly degrades
one’s ability to follow the conversation, and is far more likely to be the
source of “I’m sorry, could you repeat that” than is some technical problem
with the telephone connection.

So, what’s going on
with multitasking mavens?

While the research clearly indicates the human brain
struggles to perform multiple tasks at once, most of us have met people who
have a seemingly inhuman ability to perform several distinct activities under
pressure. However, if you study these people, they tend to gather a collection
of tasks, sequence them logically, and then focus with laser-like intensity on
a single activity. These are the people who are not fondling their smartphones
in meetings or stopping to open their email application every time the new
email beep occurs. Rather than performing several activities at once, they’re
able to focus on a single activity, then rapidly shift to the next activity.


To apply these lessons to your own organization, stop trying
to foster some inhuman ability to simultaneously perform multiple tasks. At
best, this is frustrating and results in poor performance, and at worst, costs
your organization significantly in terms of lost productivity and inferior
output. A critical component of managing multiple tasks is gathering and
prioritizing each, so work to develop your task management and tracking
capabilities. This might be a well-defined system and set of tools, or merely
sitting for a few moments and gathering your thoughts before jumping to the
next email or beeping device.

Finally, work on applying 100% of your focus to the task at
hand. For example, the quality and speed of my writing increased significantly
when I disabled all the notifications on my workstation, so I could write an
article unmolested by tweets, emails, likes, and other distractions. Even in
conversations, you’ll find the other party responding with more excitement and
engagement when you devote 100% of your mental energy to the conversation and
the speaker.

With these easily applied techniques, you can become far
more efficient at managing multiple tasks and using the human mind to its most
effective capacity. While this may seem subtly nuanced from the old idea of
multitasking, try these techniques for a day or two and you’ll notice a world
of difference.