The Real Cost of Multitasking: Why You Need to Take Action Immediately
Multitasking is a myth. It’s a myth because nearly everyone accepts it is an effective thing to do. It’s become so mainstream that people actually think it’s something they should do, and do as often as possible.
I not only hear discussions about engaging in multitasking, but I also come across conversations about improving it. There are over six million web pages providing advice on how to excel at it. Job websites even highlight “multitasking” as a skill for employers to seek and for job seekers to showcase.
The truth is multitasking is neither efficient nor effective. When it comes to achieving actual results, it consistently falls short.
Here’s What You Really Can’t Do
The term multitasking didn’t appear until the 1960s. It was used to describe computers (not people!) and their ability to quickly perform many tasks.
Here’s the thing. Multitasking is about multiple tasks alternately sharing one resource (the CPU). In time the context was flipped and it became interpreted to mean multiple things being done simultaneously by one resource (a person).
People can indeed perform two or more things at once, such as walking and talking. What we can’t do is focus on two things at once.
The issue isn’t necessarily having too little time to complete our tasks; it’s that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have. So we double and triple up in the hope of getting everything done.
As you diligently try to complete what you started, you’re alerted around the clock to new emails arriving in your inbox as people keep swinging by all day to ask you questions. Researchers suggest that workers are disrupted every 11 minutes, and they spend almost a third of their day recovering from these interruptions.
Nevertheless, despite these challenges, we still hold onto the belief that we can overcome them and do what has to be done on time with a high degree of quality.
Multitasking Uncovered: What Lies Beneath the Surface
When you switch from one task to another, voluntarily or not, two things happen.
The first is nearly instantaneous: you make the decision to switch. The second is less predictable: you need to activate the “rules” for whatever you’re going to do next.
Switching between two simple activities like watching television and reading a book is quick and relatively painless. However, if you’re working on the strategy of your next change management initiative and someone pops in to discuss a business problem, the relative complexity of those tasks makes it impossible to easily jump back and forth.
Starting a new task and restarting the one you left always takes some time. And there is no guarantee that you’ll ever pick up exactly where you left off. There is a price for this. The cost in terms of extra time from having to task switch depends on how complex or simple the tasks are.
It can range from time increases of 25% or less for simple tasks to well over 100% or more for very complicated tasks – a price many don’t realize they’re actually paying.
Here’s what I want you to remember:
- Your brain can only handle so much at once. Divide it up as much as you want, but you’ll pay a price in time and effectiveness.
- The more time you spent switched to another task, the less likely you are to get back to your original task. This is how loose ends pile up.
- Jumping between activities means you lose time as your brain adjusts. And those milliseconds add up!
Simply because our job isn’t like performing bypass surgery doesn’t mean it’s any less important. It shouldn’t make focus any less critical to our success, or the success of others.
Your work deserves no less respect. We all have a responsibility to carry out, a responsibility that deserves to be done well.
Think about it this way:
If distractions truly consume almost a third of our workday, how much does that add up to over a career? What is the loss to other careers? To businesses?
Beyond work, what impact do these distractions have on our personal lives? The people we live with, and work with on a daily basis deserve our full attention. When we give people segmented attention, switching back and forth, the switching cost is higher than just the time involved. We end up damaging relationships.
My friend, my intention isn’t to be harsh but to be honest. It’s time to put an end to multitasking once and for all. To make the most of your time, finish what you’ve started before you jump to the next thing.
That’s all for today, I’ll see you next week same time and place for more managerial goodness! Bye for now.
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams improve their delivery speed through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.