How to Kick the Multi-Tasking Addiction

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 7:23 PM EST

Multi-tasking has become an epidemic. According to recent research, college students in lectures are opening, on average, 65 new screens per lecture - 62 percent of which are entirely unrelated to the lecture or the course. They're also instant messaging and sending email.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found there is an inverse relationship between this multitasking and academic performance. Learning takes longer, involves more mistakes and may mean that learning isn't retained for long.

Of course, executives around the world also behave the same way, hoping that, by doing so many things at once, they will somehow be more productive.

The evidence suggests otherwise. Here's why:
  • Multitasking is an urban myth: Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that we never truly multi-task; we merely task-switch (albeit very quickly.) Between each switch is, effectively, a blind spot. Information gets dropped, overlooked or under-valued. This is also why you can't safely drive and talk or text on your cell phone at the same time; your intellectual capacity is worse than if you're over the legal alcohol limit. Computers might be able to multi-task, but the mind cannot.
  • Productivity isn't a function of hours: We think by doing a great deal all the time that somehow we will get more done. This is an industrial revolution model of productivity: if you can make 10 widgets in an hour, you can make 100 in 10 hours, right? Wrong. Even in manufacturing it doesn't work because you get tired and make mistakes. When it comes to intellectual processing, it is even more wrong. As we get tired, we lose the ability to discriminate and discern. We may keep going but the quality of our thinking declines. What creative work needs is a balance of focus and rest. That's why you may often find you get your best ideas driving home.
Breaking the cycle

It's hard to break our multi-tasking habits. And it's even harder if you have a boss who loves multi-tasking and thinks anyone not working this way is a slacker. Is there any way around that? Yes. The most important argument to win is the productivity argument.
  1. Make sure you're measured on output, not hours. If you are rewarded for the quality of the work you generate, then you can reasonably argue that how you get that work done is your business.
  2. Set the tone in the meetings you call: Don't use your BlackBerry. You'll also find the meetings might be shorter if you ask everyone not to bring their phones!
  3. Don't evangelize, even after you've found the new benefit of mono-tasking. Ultimately all those addicted multi-taskers will have to find their own way to kick the habit.
Have you kicked your multi-tasking addiction? How have you done it?

Further reading:
Too Little Sleep: The New Performance Killer
The No.1 Leadership Problem
Where Did Our Productivity Go?
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Anders V CC.2.0
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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