The Multitasking Myth
Whatever your job role you likely need to get more done and work in the most efficient way possible. This, in turn, leads to us often doing several things at once. Multitasking as it were. And in fact, many of us are great multitaskers – from juggling email, social media, phone calls and then several projects at any one time. If we could not multi-task we wouldn’t get much done at all – right?
Drive and Driving
Fortunately, we have several studies that clearly illustrate the impact of multitasking. One study in particular looks at the impact of talking on the phone whilst driving, and the results are clear – people who talk on their phone whilst driving, even the hands-free variety, have more accidents (1). This is pretty scary when you consider that at any time around 8% of drivers on the road are on the phone!
Maybe This Is True For Most People But…
But what? You are a super high-powered executive who can talk on the phone, type an email and manage your social media accounts all at the same time? Sorry, the research says otherwise (2). In fact, when interviewing those who believed they were effective multi-taskers, these people were shown to be the worst of all.
The general idea here is that people don’t multitask because they are good at it – they multitask because they are constantly distracted. That is – people who multitask can’t focus on the task at hand.
Numbers, Numbers, Numbers
There is a great example of our poor ability to multitask in the Scrum book that works as follows:
- Write down the numbers 1-10, the roman numerals to 10 (I, II, III, IV) and the letters A to J.
- You need to write the number, the roman numeral, and then the letter in a line
- Time yourself in seconds
Your results should look like this with ten rows in total:
1 I A 2 II B 3 III C 4 IV D etc
- When you have done this once and noted your time, I want you to repeat the exercise but work in columns.
- That is – write a column from one to ten, then a column of I to X, and a column of A to J
- You will end up with the exact same three vertical columns as the first example
- Time yourself in seconds
The first time I did this my attempt to do this in row by row approach took 1 minute and 2 seconds. My first attempt at doing this in columns took 27 seconds. Less than half the time. My team here at Bowler Hat all attempted this and times varied, but the saving in time was consistent on the second approach.
This is due to a clear focus on one task at a time and removes the overhead of switching from numbers to roman numerals to letters and back again. This simple change and single focus more than halved the time it took me to do the task. Still, think you are the master of multitasking?
But Still, These Examples Don’t Relate To Me – Right?
Don’t kid yourself – there are many more studies and science here from the world of software development where inefficient practices lead to the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. Further still, the more tasks you have on at any one time, the more inefficient you become.
The idea here is that there is a cognitive load required to switch from one task to another and this is known as context switching. In an example from the classic software development manual Quality Software Management by Gerald Weinberg (3), we see how working on five simultaneous projects can result in up to 75% of your day being wasted to context switching overhead.
- 1 task = 100% efficiency & 0% loss to context switching
- 2 tasks = 80% efficiency & 20% loss to context switching
- 3 tasks = 60% efficiency & 40% loss to context switching
- 4 tasks = 40% efficiency & 60% loss to context switching
- 5 tasks = 25% efficiency & 75% loss to context switching
Now I find this pretty terrifying. As a business owner with multiple roles within the company, it is a rare occasion that I am only focusing on one task at once – and I always tend to find myself wondering where my day went (now I know). If we check this against the results of our relatively simple numbers, numerals and letters example with three tasks we see a close map to the 40% of time lost to context switching.
Putting This Knowledge into Practice
The takeaways here are clear:
- Our brains can’t do two things at once effectively (driving and talking on the phone)
- Multitasking is not an efficient way of working
- The more tasks or projects we have on the more inefficient we become
- Focusing on one task at a time enables those tasks to be completed more quickly
- The cumulative effect of focus is more work done in less time
Ultimately, if you can focus on one job at a time then you will often complete that task in half the time it would take if you were switching between several tasks. If, like me, you often spend 12 hours a day at work and would dearly love to reduce that to 8 or even possibly 6, then there is much to benefit from taking this on board.
If you are hungry for more details there is a great chapter in ‘Scrum – The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time’ (4), the book that inspired this post, and goes into much more detail on the science and studies – recommended reading!
In the next few weeks, I will look at some of the strategies I have been using to put this into practice in my beyond hectic working day. Any questions fire me a comment below or hit me up on Twitter. If you want to find out more about improving your productivity you can find out more here.
References & further reading
- Scrum – do twice the work in half the time.