10 Truths About Multitasking

Last Updated May 1, 2011 7:51 PM EDT

10 Truths About MultitaskingIt happens all the time. A report or study comes out, somebody at a reputable publication like the New York Times or Harvard Business Review picks it up, and the next thing you know, generalizations that were never intended by the researchers are plastered all over the blogosphere.

That's exactly what's happened with multitasking.

Just check out some of these headlines: How and Why to Stop Multitasking, The Myth of Multitasking, The Backlash Against Multitasking, How to Kick the Multitasking Addiction, Multitasking Produces an Illusion of Competence -- the stuff is literally everywhere.

The problem is that most of that "multitasking is evil" stuff is more or less irrelevant, to say the least. Now, before you go off on me for making such a heretic statement, let me explain what's going on here.

Indeed, there were several studies. Yes, you'll perform better giving one thing your undivided attention. Sure, if you text or email during a meeting, you'll miss some things. Well thank you Captain Obvious. I'm floored that this was a news flash for anybody.

The truth is that, when you define multitasking in the way virtually all professionals, managers, business leaders, and executives do it, and look at its overall effectiveness for a management system or organization as a whole - instead of at the task level - you find that it's indeed critical to management effectiveness. It's a no-brainer.

So, to unravel the quagmire of misconceptions, misinformation, and confusion and set the record straight, here are -- 10 Truths About Multitasking:

  • Yes, single task performance deteriorates when you're distracted. People perform better doing one task at a time. Duh. Anybody who thinks that's an epiphany shouldn't be responsible for doing one task right -- let alone managing others.
  • Interrupting what you're doing to constantly check email and tweet isn't multitasking, it's distraction, plain and simple. Researchers who call that multitasking should lose their funding. Employees or managers who call that multitasking are just trying to make themselves look better in spite of their complete lack of discipline and inability to focus.
  • There is no such thing as doing more than one thing simultaneously. It can't happen in the physical world. Nobody can do it. Not even computers. There are laws of physics that frown upon that sort of thing. Just wanted to dispel that notion once and for all.
  • In the real management world, the only definition of multitasking that matters - that isn't trite or useless - is the concept of switching between tasks or interrupting one task in favor of another. It's how we prioritize functions and tasks in real-time. It's necessary and critical to the performance of any management or organizational system. The same techniques are used to improve computing performance, as well. Same thing for people.
  • Indeed, on a task by task basis, multitasking is not a benefit. And yes, it is more stressful than not multitasking. That said, it's a daily part of business life. Stuff happens. Priorities change. Interrupts occur that are more important than what you're working on. The task at hand will suffer, but your overall management effectiveness will benefit. Real-time flexibility - interruption and prioritization - is critical in management systems.
  • For example: an engineering project manager is deep in concentration writing a proposal. An employee comes to his office needing a critical decision on the current development project which is on hold pending his decision. They chat for a few minutes, call in someone else for an opinion, and he makes the decision. As a result, the critical development project progresses on schedule. Sure, it cost him time to get back into the proposal, but that's not as critical. Thus, the interruption and multitask made sense. That sort of thing happens daily in virtually every management or organizational system.
  • Information or communication overload and multitasking are two completely different things. McKinsey wrote a report about information overload that says, "Always-on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy." Indeed, last year I wrote, "Communication overload has reached epidemic proportions and it's killing precious productivity and effectiveness --" The problem is that, by lumping communication overload - a bad thing - in with management multitasking - a good thing - McKinsey is confusing people.
  • If you email or text while you're in a meeting, you can't possibly be paying attention. Things have to be repeated and that wastes everybody's time. If not, then you don't belong in the meeting. Period.
  • Likewise, when you're meeting one-on-one or in a small group, you should give them your undivided attention. Not only is that more efficient for everyone, it's called treating people with respect.

Bottom Line. Doctors, chefs, engineers, project managers, marketers, salespeople, line managers, executives, small business owners - anyone with decision-making, managing, or leadership in their job description needs to multitask. It comes with the territory. It's part of business and management life. It's a good thing. Don't confuse it with single-task performance, communication overload, or distraction and lack of concentration. End of story.

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