The myth of multi-tasking

Whilst listening to my local radio station last week, they asked a well known, and possibly provocative question – are women better than men at multi-tasking? This has become somewhat of an urban myth. Yet at the same time, when you think about this question, there is potential for some useful learning.

What do we mean by multi-tasking?

Always useful to start with some definitions:

  • multitasking is the apparent ability to perform more than one task, or activity, over a short period.
  • urban myth is a story or statement that is not true but is often repeated, and believed by many to be true (as I have just suggested that the gender bias in multi-tasking is an urban myth).

I think we would all recognise practical examples of multi-tasking, so this doesn’t really need illustration.

So is it true, or is it a myth?

Lets get it out there straight away – studies have shown that it is impossible to focus on more than one task at a time. Also, most recent research [example referenced below] concludes that ”there are no profound and consistent gender differences” despite the sensationalising news headlines (and radio shows) that raise this prospect largely because of entertainment value.

Granted, where we are fully proficient at one of the tasks, we may be able to undertake it alongside another. Also there is evidence that a small percentage of the population might be super-taskers.

The book – The Myth of Multitasking shows clearly why multitasking wastes time and costs money. Far from being efficient, multitasking actually damages productivity and adversely impacts relationships at work and at home.

The issue with multi-tasking is that we aren’t able to switch context that quickly. When we move on to the next task, we don’t completely leave the last task we were working on, so don’t fully deploy all of our cognitive capabilities on the new task straight away. This causes a number of challenges, not least of which is that we pay insufficient attention to the task at hand.

Personal Experience

We relate to the challenge in real life. We’re trying to get something done and the phone rings, alongside this we get a constant stream of incoming emails and someone has just stopped by your desk for a chat.

Hardly the environment for producing your best quality work.

How many times have you heard office based workers say that they “get so much more done, when they work at home”? This is largely because we have much better ability to control our environment, manage interruptions and focus our attention more productively. In other words, multi-tasking less!

If you want to get more (quality work) done:

  • Turn off email – it is a productivity destroyer. As entrepreneur and self made billionaire John Paul Dejoria says: “If I had email, I would be inundated”. Alternatively, if the amount of time you spend each day answering calls, texts, and emails is an issue but you can’t fully disconnect, try setting aside a certain time each day for these tasks. Communicate these “office hours” on your voicemail message and in your email signature. This communicates clear boundaries around when you will respond raising awareness of this with other people.
  • Protect your most productive time of the day to focus on your most important work. Stop (or at least significantly reduce) multi-tasking. By focusing quality attention to a single task, you will do your best quality work. As Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have stated, you need to say no to most everything if you’re going to get your best work done. This is particularly relevant for students and people learning new skills.
  • Have a defensible calendar – By dedicating a certain number of hours to just one task, you “block off” your time (and your mind) from other projects – and the myriad of other demands on your attention.

This is not bad learning for an urban myth. If all else fails, you can always take the advice of Cal Newport. He advises aspiring authors to retire to a cabin in the woods for six months without any internet connectivity. This might be a tad extreme for most people!

So if you are finding that you are constantly switching tasks, don’t be surprised if you don’t deliver your best work and if you feel stressed and overwhelmed if this continues for any significant period of time. Remember, you have a choice – to let it continue… or not…

References: If you want too check out some of the research, start with:Women Are Better Than Men–Public Beliefs on Gender Differences and Other Aspects in Multitasking (2015), Szameitat A. J., HamaidaY., Tulley R. S., Saylik, R. and Otermans P. C. J.;