Multitasking the Right Way

Last Updated May 24, 2011 8:17 AM EDT

You can get all kinds of advice on BNET about multitasking. Some of our writers, like Margaret Heffernan, advise against it, while Steve Tobak thinks multitasking is essential, or at least unavoidable.

Me, I come down squarely on both sides. Yes, it must be done, given the nonlinear nature of work today. And yes, it can lead to a big bag of mediocre work.

But if you understand a little about how the brain works, M-T becomes somewhat more manageable. Harvard University's Bob Behn, an expert in performance leadership, explains that tasks that combine a complex job with a simple or routine-based one -- talking and making the bed, for example -- are good candidates to be multitasked. The brain's super fast neurons are up to the effort.

We start to run into problems, Behn writes in his article Multitasking Creates Mediocrity and Mistakes, when we try to juggle two complex jobs at the same time, those that require thinking and deciding.

"These tasks require the brain to reset between each thought -- between each choice. This creates a lag. And if the brain is trying to go back and forth between two different tasks, these lags begin to accumulate (though to these lags, we humans are completely oblivious)."
That says to me that if you have a choice, pair up the routine work with the stuff requiring more thought. Don't try to task-switch between analyzing the quarterly numbers and writing a performance review, for example. But translating meeting notes and filling out a performance review might be a good work combination.

Of course we all work in the real world, and urgent tasks rarely present themselves in so orderly a manner. But the next time you start to spread yourself over two or more jobs, see if you can give your brain a rest by including a routine chore with a complex task.

What's your strategy for multitasking?

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(Photo by Flickr user morbuto, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.