September 2004 Insight Newsletter

Multitasking – Does It Work?

As we head back to intense work time going into Fall it may be worth a few moments to review this topic. Multitasking is often proposed to solve daily overload. It can work – but not the way we’re often led to believe. Striving for simplicity is highly effective and since the two concepts run counter to each other, people often ask about how they fit.

1. Right and Wrong Ways to Multitask

Most discussion of multitasking omits advice on how to do it effectively. We’re left to assume all it requires is carrying out several tasks at once. We hear disaster stories of people driving, eating and shaving while on a cell phone and looking at a map… or successes when multitasking gets great novels written in the midst of childcare. It takes some prior thought to find the right strategy, but multitasking can be a useful skill to learn.

Studies show just trying several tasks at once doesn’t work well. Our abilities to accomplish each effectively falls by more than 50% when even two are put together. Yet we’ve all tried.

Conversely we’ve all experienced the thrill of making two or more tasks work within the same time we used to spend on one. In fact we do this constantly without thinking much about it. As tasks become habits we can often safely, with little deterioration in performance, carry out other tasks almost simultaneously. There are principles for achieving this greater effectiveness. They work better if made explicit.

One way to look at this that is most effective is to see that the method really isn’t “multitasking,” but rather like reading a book while waiting somewhere – tasks you can do to fill time you’d otherwise waste like in doctors’ waiting rooms, airports and so forth. The “task” of waiting is non-involving, routine, extremely easy to do as far as “skill” goes, so other things fit in well.

When driving, one can dial a cell phone safely when the vehicle is stopped. We’re used to carrying on conversations when we drive, as long as the driving challenge or the conversation doesn’t get too intense. If you dial when stopped at a light or in stop-and-go traffic, it’s more likely you can keep your attention on the road as much as you need while you talk and move forward safely at the speed of steady traffic. Voice-dialing and hands-free units help, but distractions are still potentially dangerous, so one must keep aware of worsening situations. Because these can happen suddenly at high speed, there is great controversy over this, but so many people do it that it might be better to discuss how to do it safely.

You can accomplish two tasks together reasonably well provided you’re familiar with both and neither suddenly becomes more complex. That’s the danger in driving while on a cell phone according to a number of studies. It’s not as safe as keeping both hands on the wheel at all times, but you can limit the risks if you let your listener know your situation and that you will have to stop the conversation if driving becomes complex. Having a clear plan for rapidly returning to simplicity from “multitasking” is essential.

In short there are three essential skills for multitasking well. First, safety – stay aware at all times that you’re putting potentially difficult tasks together. Second, know your limits – recognize this is harder than doing either task alone and that we have limits in skill and stress tolerance that may strongly suggest we stop. Third, plan for safety and sanity – by picking tasks you’re familiar with and that are fairly habitual. Think through a plan beforehand, don’t just launch into multiple tasks. That way you can determine what will need to give way if things become hectic. Practice makes perfect, so try the easy multitasking challenges first before taking on more risky tasks.

The same rules apply for longer-term, more complex tasks. If a company makes its strategy more complex by adding a second set of products, recognize it will take more effort and especially more coordination. The coordination itself becomes a third and separate set of tasks beyond the new line that’s added to the old. Wayne Inouye, new CEO of Gateway Computers had this to say in the Wall Street Journal recently as he announced they were dropping several new lines: “People talk about multitasking, but in real life, you have to focus on one thing at a time.” If this were totally true, no company would ever expand its lines. What’s needed is a sense of balance when developing more complex strategies.

On a personal level you can raise your stress levels through the roof by attempting to write a long report while staying on top of phone calls, emails and drop-in visitors. Research shows a single 30 second phone call or other interruption requires almost 5 minutes to re-orient yourself back to the main task. Of course the interruption itself is likely to be more than 30 seconds, too. Two or three of these can certainly cut deeply into each work hour. Decide whether answering every call is essential. See if you can choose which to pick up by using an assistant or caller identification to screen. Let the rest go until later for follow up. Planning helps develop effective tactics.

Up to a point we deal well with distraction. We may be fine for short periods when at peak energy and awareness, but interruptions use up attention capacity as the mind juggles priorities. As multitasking extends longer and individual tasks increase in complexity we can reach our limit more quickly and lose concentration. It helps to take a break or be prepared to stop in logical priority sequence. Lapsing into frustration can be disastrous.

The same is true in the area of long-term life goals. To change cities, homes, spouses, jobs, levels of work or career areas all at the same time drains vastly more energy than doing any one alone. In fact any one of these may feel overwhelming during the transition, before new habits take root and make many of the changed elements routine. Give yourself breaks and reflect on how you’re managing. Take a bit of planning time to think through the multitasking you’re intending to do and see if you are approaching these situations safely – in physical terms such as when driving and in mental and emotional terms when on other sorts of tasks. That small extra consideration time for yourself really pays off when a number of things simply have to get done at once.

2. Useful Resources
As always there are many useful items on the Internet. Most interesting technically is this key study: Is Multitasking Efficient? Then there is the inevitable humour. The next is more reflective of the “be careful” genre: Does multitasking make you stupid? There are lots of safety-oriented sites which can be helpful. There seems to be a tacit assumption that we all multitask more and more to keep up, which seems true, but then very little in the way of advice about how to do it effectively is provided.

3. Stress Management
Where all this takes us ultimately is back to stress management as a key issue the more complex our society becomes. Soon we will have to face the need to teach this from early years, with school courses and useful coaching at every level. Our children have the potential of becoming the most stressed out generation in history before they reach the age of consent. In this regard, here’s a site geared to business and other individuals that may be of use. However, you may want to leave this to a more relaxed time to fully investigate as it appears to contain an large amount of information on this very important topic: MindTools.