“A weakness of all human beings is trying to do too many things at once”Henry Ford
“Multi-tasking is dead. It never worked and it never will. Intelligent people love to sing its praises because it gives them permission to avoid the much more challenging alternative: focusing on one thing.”Timothy Ferriss
In my blog on February 18th, I wrote about staying focused when many things need doing. I offered a couple of suggestions on staying focused including keeping after a project until it’s finished and letting other things slip. It got me thinking about the concept of multi-tasking and how over-rated the idea really is. A little research reveals that inefficiencies occur as people switch from task to task. The business community has begun to question the effectiveness of trying to do multiple things at the same time.
My own anecdotal evidence seems to support that finding. Feeling a bit overwhelmed the past few weeks, I recognized I could only focus on one thing at a time. There were several important projects on my plate and it wasn’t until I picked one, completed it, and then moved on to another that I started to feel productive. The idea of juggling several things simultaneously was both stressful and counter-productive for me personally.
In a switch from my normal blog format, I’ve asked Jana Primmer of Bigfork Web Development to contribute to today’s post. For some background, Jana has been editing my blogs since I started posting regularly last November. Her skills as an editor have made my posts much better — I’m grateful. When we first met, I remember Jana relating a story how Bigfork Web?s president had to re-train her to single task and abandon multitasking. I’ve asked Jana to relate that story as another perspective on why multitasking is over-rated.
It’s true. As accomplished as I thought I was at managing projects, I did indeed require retraining. My job descriptions previously had always included multi-tasking as an essential element of the job. Prior job applications vetted me for the ability to juggle, switch and adjust. I then met an environment that did not extol the virtues of multi-tasking, but embraced a singular focus.
Oddly enough, multi-tasking is a term that came from the computer and technology field many years ago. I believe it is the very environment created by computers and technology within our offices today that make multi-tasking for humans a less-than-desirable trait. Because we are connected in so many ways each minute of every day, our thoughts are tempted to stray in a hundred directions within seconds of each email arrival, Instant Message, Skype call, phone call, text message, RSS feed, breaking news story, and occasionally the human interaction of a customer or co-worker.
From 43 Things, a quote from the NY Times:
In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Multitasking, a term cribbed from computers, is an information age creed that, while almost universally sworn by, is more rooted in blind faith than fact. It’s the wellspring of office gaffes, as well as the stock answer to how we do more with less when in fact we?re usually doing less with more. What now passes for multitasking was once called not paying attention.
In a busy web development company with a stack of active projects and an office full of buzzing team-mates, I fell victim to multi-tasking. My tech-savvy employer intervened and educated me, saving me frustration and time, while helping me accomplish more. That education included several tips:
- Change Outlook settings: no noises, no alerts when new emails arrive. Set the pull of emails from the server to a lesser frequency – not every minute! Resist the urge to check your emails every few minutes and being pulled into a new project or the latest emergency. Stay focused.
- Structure your day. Make your list of tasks or to-do’s for the day. Decide to spend the morning on one certain focus, and then the afternoon on another project. This gives the restless soul a change of venue during the day, yet compels you to focus on one thing at a time.
- Set a time in your day for phone calls. If someone in your office fields your phone calls, ask them to collect all messages and deliver them to you via email. Set a few times each day devoted only to returning your phone calls.
- Set your Instant Messenger or Skype status to Busy or Away when needed to allow focus on a project and avoid interruptions.
My own personal addition to these single-tasking rules has been to set a timer while working on one project. My conscience and integrity keeps me from straying to other projects while I am ‘on the clock’ for that client!
Single-tasking does not mean that we give up the ability or desire to be flexible and accommodating to people. We must still allow for occasional interruptions in our intended focus, particularly when emergencies arise and clients need us. Single tasking does not mean we need to be rigid. It allows us to shift gears when necessary while maintaining overall control of our thoughts and activities.
Acknowledging that multi-tasking breeds distraction, less focus, less productive work and often lesser quality was my first step. Changing my habits was the critical next step. The reward has been work days filled with more productivity, better quality output for my clients, and greater personal satisfaction at the end of each day.
Next Blog Title: Update from the Celebrity Impersonators Convention (Las Vegas)
Next Blog Date: Thursday, March 4, 2010