Multi-tasking – a curse or a skill?

Hands up if you’ve ever checked emails while watching TV; typed up some notes for your next meeting while listening to a presentation; or popped into social media while on a telephone conversation. Most of us resort to multi-tasking because despite having a multitude of technological aids that are supposed to make our lives easier we’ve never been busier.

The very technology that has made our lives so much easier (who would argue against the joy of internet banking, versus bank queues) has also enslaved us. Just look around the next time you are in a restaurant…it’s not uncommon to see a group of diners (especially if there are teenagers in their midst) each engrossed in their own mobile phone.

Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. Researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.

According to Guy Winch, PhD, author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries, multitasking is really task-switching.”

“When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says.

“It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.” Moving back and forth between several tasks actually wastes productivity, he says, because your attention is expended on the act of switching gears—plus, you never get fully “in the zone” for either activity.

The moral of the story? Do one thing at a time, you’ll get more done. And you’ll do it better.

According to Tony McManus, MD of McManus Consulting, this advice is never more valid than in the world of project management.

“Project managers are inherently expected to have many balls in the air at any given time. Cultivating the art of being mindful; actually being fully present and not distracted, is a valuable skill.”

This view supports the Theory of Constraint proposed by Eli Goldratt is the Theory of Constraints and Critical Chain. According to Goldratt, overload in a situation that relies on constrained resources to get something done leads to “bad multitasking”, which in turn leads to inefficiencies and impacts on performance.

“The solution is simple – albeit not always easy to implement: focus on the task at hand before moving on to the next one and ensure that the workflow within your team is monitored so that team members are not overloaded and left with no option but to multitask,” says McManus.

When constructing your schedule, ensure that resources are not allocated 100% of their day to tasks, leave time for administration and time outs, which are vital for mental health. People’s availability is simply not the default eight hours a day as enforced by most planning tools and changing this to reflect a more realistic allocation, like six hours a day, will improve planning accuracy.

© Tony McManus, McManus Consulting.