In a recent Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz once again admonishes us about multitasking and offers some tips offering multitasking relief in the context of meetings, response expectations and taking breaks.
Why is multitasking “suddenly” the hip thing to rail against?
I suspect it’s a reflection of a number of things – including the economy, the need to get more dont to survive (much less to thrive) and most of all, because the bully pulpit is a reflection of the most valuable (and often most costly) lessons we’ve learned.
The obvious negatives to juggling are still there: Quality, exhaustion (ask any new mom) and stress, for example.
The major pain point isn’t what you might think: Everything takes longer.
It should seem obvious, but it might not hit home until you see this illustration.
Imagine you have 3 tasks (A, B and C) that each take 8 hours to complete.
- If you multi-task each one for an hour at a time, it looks like this: ABCABCABCABCABCABCABCABC
- If you juggle each task for two hours at a time, it looks like this: AABBCCAABBCCAABBCCAABBCC
- If you focus on each task for four hours at a time, it looks like this: AAAABBBBCCCCAAAABBBBCCCC
- If you focus on each task until completed, it looks like this: AAAAAAAABBBBBBBBCCCCCCCC
Using the first method, task A is done after twenty-two hours of work.
Using the second method, task A is done after twenty hours of work.
Using the third method, task A is done after sixteen hours of work.
Using the fourth method, task A is done after eight hours of work.
Eight vs twenty-two.
The real problem
What’s most disturbing about this is that we ENCOURAGE multi-tasking as employers and co-workers.
We step into someone’s office with “Got a minute?” question when that question could be resolved with 5 minutes searching Google or just looking around the office a little. Even if we get the answer in 30 seconds from that person, we’ve interrupted their work and their focus. In some cases, it might have taken them as long as 20 minutes to get as deep as necessary into their work (common for highly technical work).
We let email, phones (of any kind), instant messenger and text messages divert our attention with zero notice. Got an email? The lizard brain that Seth Godin refers to is at the base of your skull screaming “STOP EVERYTHING, I MUST ANSWER IT NOW!”
The unresponsive one?
I was called to task for this not all that long ago under the guise that I was being “unresponsive”. My take on it was that I was not being unresponsive, I was simply focusing on work scheduled months earlier by a paying customer who likely wouldn’t have been excited to find me being pulled away from focusing on their work every few minutes by a phone call or email, much less a tweet.
It’s not unlike when you’re reading the paper and a four year old is asking you 20 questions. Your reading and your attention to the four year old will not only suffer, but you will probably resent the interruptions and feel bad about it later.
Is that the mindset you want to have with the four year old? Probably not. Keeping that in mind – it’s also not the state of mind you want to be in (“Darn that phone….CAN I HELP YOU????”) when answering the phone or an email from an inquiring customer or prospect.
The unresponsive (or just slow, you make the call) one is really the one who is a slave to their email, phone, chat, text messages and so on and can’t stay focused for more than a few minutes.
At this point, the eternally busy doing little of substance and those who work on big projects are rolling their eyes and pondering whether they should change the channel.
The truly productive ones already know what I’m about to say. This isn’t about seeing how many things you can shuffle between at once. It’s ultimately about breaking things down into reasonable-sized piles of work and focusing on the pieces rather than the entire project.
It’s OK when entertainer Penn Jillette juggles, but it’s not something to do with your work.
Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site, contact him on Twitter, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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