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The myth of multi-tasking

Rowena (Ro) Crosbie is the president of Tero International Inc.

One of the most enduring myths around time management is that multi-tasking saves time. Evidence that we are surrounded by this myth comes from the more than six million web pages offering strategies about how to multi-task.  

Leaders covet this quality in employees and interview candidates brag about high multi-tasking abilities. People proudly credit multi-tasking for their ability to get many things done. After all, doing two things at once must be better than doing one thing at a time. Or is it? Multi-tasking

The Research

In his book, The One Thing, author Gary Keller cites a 2009 study designed to reveal the qualities that make for a great multi-tasker. Stanford Professor, Clifford Nass, divided 262 test subjects into two groups. 

The group of high multi-taskers were outperformed on every measure by their low multi-tasker counterparts. Despite their own convictions about their capacity to do two things at once, the research was clear. Multi-tasking is a recipe for losing efficiency and effectiveness. When you try to do two things at once, you either can’t or you won’t do either task as well.

Why? 

Our brains are hard-wired to focus. 

Can I walk and talk at the same time? Yes. You use different parts of your brain for those activities and one of them (walking) is unconscious. If you are walking over treacherous terrain, the conversation would stop so you could concentrate (become conscious) on the walking. Similarly, you can drive your car and listen to the radio. That is, until you find yourself driving in a blinding Iowa snow storm and then the radio becomes a distraction. Driving has necessarily become conscious and you must focus.

Many of the things we try to do at the same time use the same part of our brain. For example, the activities of emailing and talking on the phone both use the communication center of your brain. When you try to do both activities at the same time, you miss something. When you try to read the scrolling updates at the bottom of the television screen while also listening to the media interview, your attempts at multi-tasking fail you and you miss something. When you are working on an expense report and your colleague drops by to interrupt you to talk about a business problem, the relative complexity of those two tasks makes it difficult to jump back and forth and it takes a toll on our productivity.

The Cost

What do multi-tasking and interruptions cost? It depends on the complexity of the tasks. Researchers estimate that the time lost can range from 25% on simple tasks to more than 100% on complex tasks. 

Multi-tasking also exacts a toll on relationships. When you are attempting to listen to someone while also checking your Smartphone, the other party realizes that they don’t have your full attention and the cost goes beyond lost efficiency – relationships also suffer.

Leaders can quickly enjoy improvements in productivity, decreases in errors and reductions in stress by applying this insight to their workplaces.

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