The Multitasking Myth

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In 1959, Peter Drucker wrote about “knowledge workers”, in his book The Landmarks of Tomorrow.  In 2018, there is still no universally agreed upon definition for the term knowledge worker.  However, examples of knowledge workers are software engineers, project managers, physicians, engineers, scientists, accountants, lawyers, and academics, all workers whose jobs require non-routine problem solving.  Some researchers define knowledge workers as those who have a deep background in education and experience and are considered people who “think for a living.”  Said more narrowly, a knowledge worker’s daily output is not measured in cranking out tangible widgets. It’s measured in useful insights and connecting ideas.

In Team of Teams, my friend and college roommate, David Silverman, wrote about Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “scientific management” philosophy. He argues that his paint-by-numbers approach is no longer effective in our knowledge economy. Workers are rather dealing with complex, adaptive environments.  Knowledge workers don’t “crank widgets” as David Allen put it Getting Things Done.  Knowledge workers deal with complex, multidimensional problems that do not always have a clear widget-like outcome.  I’ve written about agency in a complex environment in prior posts.

Thus, it is challenging to measure the individual contributions of a knowledge worker’s output.  And more complexity in the environment makes the measurement even more challenging.  In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.  Sending lots of email, scheduling and attending meetings, and doing conference and video calls. This is managing rather than making, and staying busy rather than productive.

With less clear indicators of the value of our outputs how then do we determine our inputs?  What to specifically focus on each day?

You write it down.  Every day you write down your top one or two initiatives that when complete all other tasks naturally follow You maintain a relentless discipline on only those top one or two initiatives!

Alex Ikonn and Uj Ramdas, authors of The Five-Minute Journal, say it best when they state that “spectacular results are a product of intelligent design and herculean consistency.”

The multitasking myth…

To make matters worse, when we’re not writing down and staying relentlessly focused on our top one or two initiatives each day, we get interrupted on average between 32 and 60 times per day.  And most interruptions are for things that are of little or no value.  Then, in trying to get back on task we burn roughly half the workday, about four hours in all, getting refocused on what we were supposed to be doing in the first place.  Who interrupts us?  In research done at the University of California, findings show that 44% of the time, workers interrupt themselves.  We waste two full hours of our own time and that loss is entirely self-induced.  Why?  Because we think we can multitask.

Ask people how they get so much done?  They say, “Oh, I’m good at multitasking.”  Ask people how they study and work with the TV or radio turned on?  “Oh, I’m good at multitasking.”  Research on this topic is nearly unanimous which is rare in the social sciences.  Humans cannot multitask!  Multitasking is affecting our ability to concentrate, manage our emotions, and think creatively.  People who do multitask show an enormous range of deficits and are horrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks such as managing working memory.  Many people think they’re good at multitasking simply because they do it all of the time, not because it is effective.  When people are actually tested at doing multiple tasks at once they perform terribly as compared to people who habitually focus on single tasks at a time.  The people who know how to focus have trained their brains to do so.  Conversely, self-proclaimed multi-taskers have trained themselves to be chronically distracted.

How then, does stuff still get done?  Sometimes things don’t get done at all.  As a result of interruption, 18% of tasks are pushed off to the next day, and then the next, and the next.  The things that do get accomplished are a result of working harder and faster at the expense of completeness and personal well being.  Trying to do the same amount of work in less time results in intangible costs such as increased stress levels, worse judgment, poor decision making, inaccurate problem solving, feelings of frustration, and less enjoyment.  And we haven’t even added up the financial costs of lost productivity.

From the field of positive psychology we know that willpower and resistance tolerance are limited resources.  They are muscles that tire with use.  We deplete our willpower if we are resisting interruption and temptation all day in the workplace.  From a neuroscience standpoint, depleting our willpower is also biological.  The adult brain is only 2-3% of our body weight but consumes 20% of the fuel in our system.  As knowledge workers, we need all the fuel for the brain that we can get.  If we’re dealing with interruptions and temptations all day we’re consuming brain fuel and depleting willpower while working on things of little or no value.  Thus, we are leaving ourselves little energy and focus to work on the initiatives that really matter the most!

Out of sight, out of mind. In sight, in mind!  

Email and to-do lists are big, long distracting marquees of interruption tempting us to do stuff.  Not important stuff.  Just stuff.  Answering email and checking off things on a to-do list are simply exercises in activity.  We feel as if we’re getting stuff done.  But are we really focusing on our goals defined as compelling outcomes?  What is out of sight is out of mind, and what is in sight is in mind!  A daily ritual of writing down our top one to two most important tasks of the day is the single best way to design our day for optimal results.  Putting our daily one or two top initiatives down on paper where we can see them and refer back to them is the surest way to control our daily inputs, reduce distraction, prevent multitasking, and accomplish meaningful results.

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1 Comment

  1. […] an idea about it.” He reiterates some interesting points about the dangers of multitasking (or the myth thereof). He discusses his view of the value of concentration and solitude and formulating new ideas and […]

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