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The Psychology of Technology: The Myth of Multitasking

Like many businesspeople, you probably take great pride in being a multitasker. You talk on your mobile phone, send email, check the stock market on line, and perhaps even read a letter and jot down notes for an upcoming meeting all at the same time (or so you think). Why do you multitask? Well, how else are you going to get everything done that you need to get done (and still have time for a life!). You believe you are the epitome of efficiency, getting so much done all at once.

There’s one problem with this scenario: there is no such thing as multitasking. The fact is that multitasking is a myth that has been promulgated by the “technological-industrial complex” to make overly scheduled and stressed out businesspeople feel efficient, productive, and, well, businesslike.


Serial Tasking

I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but you are neither a multitasker nor as efficient or productive as you could be. The reality is, though, that human beings are incapable of focusing on more than one thing at a time (except if one task is automatic, such as driving). Despite appearances, you simply can’t talk on the phone, read email, etc., etc., at the same time. What you and every other businessperson engages in is actually high-speed serial tasking. In other words, you shift sequentially from one task to another in rapid succession, for example, from your phone conversation to your smartphone to a document on your computer screen and back again, all in the belief that you are doing the business of business so efficiently and effectively. So please erase multitasking from your vocabulary; it just doesn’t exist in reality.

Unfortunately, recent research has shown that, when you are doing high-speed serial tasking, you are going about your business neither efficiently nor effectively. This research has demonstrated that when you shift focus from one task to another, that transition is neither fast nor smooth. Instead, there is a lag time during which your brain must disconnect from the initial task and connect to the new task. This shift takes time and wastes time, in fact, a lot of time, especially for complex tasks, such as writing a strategic plan or preparing a presentation.

Control Your World

Actively creating extended periods of focus is much more efficient and productive. A good starting point involves how you structure your day. First, prioritize your daily activities. If you are like most businesspeople, you have such confidence in your ability to be productive that you schedule far more than you actually can get done. Add in the daily crises plus the so-called multitasking and you have little chance of completing everything on your daily calendar. You end up overestimating your capabilities and being disappointed at the end of the day because you weren’t able to check off everything on your task list.

Instead, I encourage you to underestimate what you can accomplish—it will still be a lot—and be pleasantly surprised at the end of the day at how much you get done. An added bonus is that you will be less stressed, enjoy your day more, and produce higher-quality work to boot. So rank your upcoming tasks in order of significance based on how important it is, when it needs to be accomplished, and how much time it will take to finish. Then choose the activities that rank highest on your priority list and commit to finishing them regardless of the potential distractions that may arise. If you finish the highest-priority tasks, you can then tackle those of a lower priority (or leave the office a bit earlier than usual).

Second, be selective in responding to what you perceive as crises. As a businessperson, you know that much of what disrupts a day are unexpected “fires” that must be put out immediately. These unanticipated events disrupt your focus and set your schedule back, often so far that you can’t catch up. But in my work with CEO’s and senior management, I have found that many of the so-called crises aren’t as calamitous as they appear and could be dealt with at a later point. So be clear on what constitutes a crisis and be willing to set aside those that don’t quite meet that standard.

Third, if you have an administrative assistant, use them as a gatekeeper. Again, in my work with senior management, I have learned that there are few people more important to a businessperson than a competent and strong “admin.” By educating your admin on your new tasking habits, they can block entry into your office from unnecessary visitors, turn away nonurgent calls, and monitor your email while you’re focused just in case there is an actual emergency that requires your attention.

Single Tasking

Finally, structure your immediate environment in a way that will maximize your ability to focus and minimize potential distractions for extended periods. Specify the setting in which you are most productive, for example, in a comfortable chair, a well-lit room, and with your shoes off. Also, organize your workspace in a way that will allow you to work efficiently, with easy access to available information and a minimum of distracting clutter and irrelevant information in your field of vision.

Then identify the distractions that are most present in your work environment. Here are some of the most common distractions and possible solutions:

  • People coming in and out of your office or walking by your cubicle. Solution: close your office door or configure your cubicle so you face away from the opening.
  • The compulsive and frequent desire to check your smartphone. Solution: turn it off for periods when you need to focus on another task. If necessary, give it to someone, such as your admin or a colleague, and have them swear that they won’t give it back to you until you’ve finished your task (regardless of how much you may beg, threaten, or bribe them).
  • Zipping from one task to another. Solution: pick one task and commit to a specific length of uninterrupted time that you will devote to it.

Don’t think for a minute that implementing these changes will be easy. Like many businesspeople, you may be a multitasking junkie, feeling a constant urge to check your email, read the latest business news, or connect with colleagues. But, as with most “addictions,” acknowledgement and acceptance are the first steps to “cure.”

I wouldn’t recommend trying to break your multitasking addiction cold turkey. An incremental approach seems to be most effective. Pick one or two strategies that I have described above and commit yourself to them. With dedication, time, and practice, you will learn how to focus more effectively. And the great thing about breaking yourself of your multitasking habits is that its benefits are self-evident and substantial. The more you reject multitasking the more efficient and effective you will become, and the less stress you will feel. And these changes will result in the ultimate goal of every businessperson: increased performance, productivity, and profitability. To learn more about performing at your highest level consistently, read my Prime Business Alert! newsletter here.