The Evils of Multitasking

Have you ever played the game where you pat the top of your head while rubbing circles on your belly? You can do it for a few seconds easily enough, but eventually you start to pat in circles on your belly. This is the essence of multitasking: doing two (or more) things at the same time and doing neither well.

It’s impossible to multitask when activities require brain power. Your brain actually functions much better when focusing on just one thing at a time, despite the myth that multitasking makes you more efficient. What you’re actually doing when you multitask is rapidly flitting back and forth from one task to another, giving neither task your full attention. And that is an inefficient way to work.

A familiar scenario
Let’s say you sit down to write an important email to a client. You’re a few sentences in when the phone rings, and without thinking you answer. Now you’re listening to a lengthy story, narrated by a colleague. But you’re impatient to get back to your work, so you half-listen and wait for her to get to the point – while you continue to scan the email and decide what you’re going to write next.

Eventually, the phone call ends and you turn back to the task at hand. But wait–you realize you need to reference a piece of paper in the physical file – which is down the hall on your assistant’s desk. While you’re at it, you walk to their desk via the coffee machine. Your assistant asks you a question about another client file while you’re there, and you spend a few minutes giving guidance. Finally back at your desk after five minutes, a coffee break, and two unrelated conversations, you sit down to look at the half-written email again.

And you ask yourself, where was I?

Doing it differently
The answer is to focus on one task at a time. Because it takes about 20 minutes to return to the level of concentration you had prior to an interruption, it’s best to avoid them altogether as much as possible. You have a finite amount of attention and focus available to you at any given point in time. If you divide that attention among multiple tasks, each one is only getting a fraction of the attention it deserves. This is inefficiency in action, folks!

Instead, treat each task as a unit – not to be interrupted – and you will do that task efficiently.

Take two
Here’s a possible do-over of our scenario from earlier:
You’re drafting the email response. Because you planned out the task in advance, you secured the file and your coffee refill before starting. The phone rings but you aren’t aware of it because you have proactively turned off your ringer for the 30 minutes you are engaged in this task. (And better to give your colleague your entire attention, no?) Due to the regular daily meeting you have scheduled with your assistant, she has been instructed to store up questions until that time. So there’s no need for her to interrupt you midway through your work on the email.

See what you’ve done there? These little time savings add up, folks!

A bit of planning and a focus on one thing at a time means less stress from being pulled in multiple directions. You’ll have a better result in the end and, I bet, you will do the task faster as well. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.