Sometimes it may be necessary, but multitasking doesn’t always work.
Multitasking can turn into the classic case of three things three quarters done. This can equal almost zero value.* Imagine if all leaders spent the same time (probably less) on just one of their tasks and shipped and shared the outcome? That would equal something of value.
These traps are just so easy to fall into. As work gets more complex, especially as we work from home, more people are often involved in multiple projects and the trap of multitasking gets easier to fall into. We do live in the real world and sometimes there is no option to do this, but try to block out space to do one thing at a time and. just. focus.
Many things need responding to, meetings come up, we have to wait for others to do things, we need to respond to others. These are all real things we have to manage. However, when you look at the science or even just pause to reflect, the cost is great, so we should be as conscious as possible about multitasking and try to overcome it as much as possible. A nice saying to remember that helps is…
One thing done is better than three things three quarters done.
It’s even worse if you look at the human brain. We can only keep one thing at a time in working memory. So when we multitask we are actually operating sequentially, stopping one thing, re-finding the ‘memory’ of the old one and then starting again. This costs us minutes of cognitive function (aka productivity in our kind of work) while we get up to speed with the new task. Another way to look at it, is that task switching costs us about 30% of our cognitive capacity – yep, focusing on just one thing at a time for a prolonged period of time makes you 30% smarter (or vice versa). I know what I would prefer!
* The value isn’t really zero as there is significant value in working across multiple tasks. Focusing on one thing however can help you get there a little faster.
Want to read more?
- Diversity in Counsel, Unity in Command HERE
- A.I, Coaching and Chess HERE
I got an email about related to a problem one of our partners was experiencing. I was one of five people cc’d into the email. I glanced at it and thought, “hmm that’s a bit tough, I might need some help with this”. Then I noticed that the person I would ask for help was on the email as well in cc. My instant system one brain kicked in, ‘whew, not my problem, archive that and move on”. The only problem is that everyone else on that email would have been justified in doing the same thing. Everyone’s problem is no-one’s problem.
I had just become another workplace example of the well researched theory of, “the bystander effect” blended with a bit of “social loafing”. If I think that someone else might act then I am less likely to take take responsibility (aka Leadership). It’s also closely related to specific vs general concept. What would I be more likely to respond to? a) Carl, our app is causing phones to dissolve into a pile of yellow goo – can you help me?, or b) People, it seems the app is causing problems with phones – any ideas?” OK, I’m exaggerating for effect, but if we are honest this type of thing happens all the time. It is also very likely to happen more, and do more damage as we grow and resultantly we don’t innately know each other and know each others work as much.
What can we do about it? First I think we should be conscious of it. The responsibility sits on both the side of the sender of the message and the receiver of the message (I mean this broadly not just with emails). There is no moral high ground and it impacts us all – these are psychological biases and tendencies all people have, not a bad or distracted person.
So now we are conscious and aware we can take a path of action. Don’t get something off your plate by adding it to a bunch of other people’s plates and then wonder why it doesn’t get solved, instead ask the one person who is best to solve it. Equally, if you receive a note like I did, don’t do what I just did. Instead take a moment (to save many) and connect the problem raiser with the ideal problem solver directly. It also goes deeper. One part of a leaders role is to make sure there is clarity in our work and roles, but this can only go so far. Make it part of everyone’s job to let others know what they do and the things they can deal with, if we all do this then all of us will know more precisely where to go specifically for help when issues arise.
The upside is a big one, lets benefit from the “Wisdom of the Crowds” … rather than fall into the… “none of us are as dumb as all of us”, trap.