Is Multi-focusing Possible?
When we hear admonitions like, “eat less”, “floss your teeth”, “exercise more”, we know intuitively that we should. Yet we often live as though it’s not true. In a similar way, deep down inside we have this sneaking suspicion that ricocheting from one thing to another is not as productive as we would like to think. Yet the context we live in drives us to this kind of behavior.
Fast food lines, frenetic behavior by our colleagues, rush hour traffic, the constant bombardment of information, drives us to multitasking behavior. So we see cultural resistance to any research that might expose multitasking for what it really is. This leads to a society that feels multitasking is essential.
Add to all of this the systems and procedures of our daily activities which reinforces even more the myths surrounding multitasking. How many job descriptions have you seen that includes multitasking as a desired, if not a required skillset? It is often used as one measure by which we promote our people—they can multitask. It is often held in adoration when in reality it is the emperor without any clothes.
Perhaps knowing the etymology¹ of the term multitasking would be helpful. It originated in the computer engineering industry. It referred to the ability of a microprocessor to process several tasks simultaneously. In actuality, it involved sharing the processer. Only one task could be active at a time, but the activities rotated through many times per second. Like the microprocessor, our brains can only do one complex activity at a time, but with much slower switching and the loss of productivity.
According to one study², multitasking is a coping mechanism, and like many coping mechanisms, it leads to other issues if it is not realistically address. It makes us feel like we need to do this in order to cope, but it doesn’t help in the long run. It’s the only way people feel they can deal with the pace life throws their way.
The research is clear. There is a 28% loss of productivity caused by switching from one thing to the next. But it gets worse. The more things you do, the greater the production loss. So we attempt to speed things up, when in reality we are slowing productive activity down. It’s activity without accomplishment.
One supervisor recently shared a story. He was on the phone talking to a client-customer, while at the same time listening to his assistant’s question, while at the same time attempting to answer an email. The client on the phone broke the spell with the question, “are you alright? I just asked you a question and you didn’t respond.” The supervisor immediately got up and finished the call in the hallway, then dealt with the assistant’s question, and concluded by responding to the email. With further review it was discovered that doing all of these at the same time took the better part of an hour. What happened when they were done separately?
The phone call took five minutes. The assistant’s question took three minutes. The email took four minutes. Trying to multitask took close to an hour. Focusing on one task at a time took 17 minutes.
Just like the microprocessor, we can switch-task, moving rapidly between one thing and another, but we are not really multitasking for the simple reason that we lose precious productive moments in between. Studies have been done showing people distracted by emails, text messages, and phone calls. There was a ten point drop in their IQs. This was more than two times the impact of smoking marijuana, and similar to losing a nights sleep.
To further complicate the situation, we take these bad habits and apply them to life in general—our family life, friendships, and time alone to reflect on our existence. It’s one thing to go to meetings, text, and do emails, but the problem is compounded when we do this in our home and social environments. This impacts our ability to grow personally and develop meaningful relationships with family and friends.
Multitasking may make you feel more productive as you scurry from one task to another. But it’s only a feeling. Focus on one thing at a time and you will be more productive, whether you feel like it or not.
And take time to floss. :-)
(Mick Ukleja is the co-author of the book Who Are You? What Do You Want?: Four Questions That Will Change Your Life)
²The Myth Of Multitasking: How Doing It All Gets Nothing Done, David Crenshaw, 2008