The lie of multitasking

The ability to perform multiple activities at once is usually regarded as an asset. Recent research may prove that wrong.

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 field

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.

Practical multitasking

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.