There is no such thing as multi-tasking

My client, let’s call her Dominique, is a hard worker. A senior executive with a major investment bank, she works long hours ­- sometimes 18-hour shifts. When she came to see me, she explained that she was exhausted and wanted to see how she could get better at multitasking. I would have loved to help her with this – except I knew I couldn’t. The reason? Multitasking does not work!

This may seem a bit contradictory. After all, we can talk and walk at the same time, and our brain controls our breathing while we watch a movie. But when I work with clients on ‘multitasking’ issues, we are looking at the capacity of our brains to pay attention. And when it comes to paying attention to two or more things at the same time, our brains simply don’t step up to the task. At best we shift our attention sequentially from one task to the other, often in a somewhat erratic fashion (research shows: the average employee focuses on one task about 11 minutes with every 3 minutes facing an interruption, either by internal thoughts or external distractions). And studies show that a person who is interrupted needs twice as long to get the job done. We also loose our capacity of memory retention, sacrificing the ability to capture nuances and detail. As a result, our error rate shoots up by 50 percent!

We’ve all seen it (and many of us have done it): being on our cell phones while driving. Yet, according to research, trying to simultaneously pay attention to traffic and to your conversation (i.e. multitasking) is as dangerous as drink driving. Opening emails every time they come in (rather than devote a chunk of time in regular intervals) can have the same effect as cocaine when it comes to releasing stress hormones (even the nice ones).

Don’t believe it? Then try this exercise that I saw as part of an Energy Project presentation:

Step 1

Take a stopwatch. Start timing yourself as you copy these numbers:

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20

Then (still timing yourself) write down this sentence:

Multitasking is a myth.

How much time did it take you? Make a note.

Step 2

Now start afresh, time yourself again, but this time alternate a number, a letter of ‘Multitasking is a myth’, and then a number again:

Here is an example: 1M  2u  3l  4t  5i… etc.

How long did this take you? And check back over – did you notice any mistakes that crept in?

Some of you may argue that as we practice switching, we become more effective at it. True – but we never get as good as when we focus on doing one thing at a time.

So let me come back to my client Dominique. After our initial coaching session, Dominique shifted from wanting to become a better multitasker, to wanting to learn how to manage her energy levels more effectively, and how to focus and prioritize, allowing her to make better decisions and become more effective overall. (Check out our article on managing priorities if you want to learn more.) Some of the exercises we used to help her accomplish this was by starting to identify her internal and external distractions. Next, Dominique identified tasks she typically had to take care of during a work week and allocated times to key tasks that she would try and focus on. As she started out, we made sure to stretch her enough but not too much and her goal was to allocate 20 minutes of uninterrupted time intervals to different tasks. Her assistant was keyed in and would make sure she was effectively gate keeping Dominique from external interruptions. Dominique also set aside ‘renewal times’ – a key characteristics of great performers. Every 90 minutes she would get up, move her body, and take a break and do something she enjoys and that energizes her. And we helped her to ‘simplify’ some decisions that would otherwise eat up a lot of her time and energy (i.e Dominique ritualized her meals during the day, helping her avoid spending energy on what to eat every day like many of us who end up on average making 237 decisions around food in a 24 hour time window!). Simplifying some of our daily decisions is not a new strategy when it comes to saving energy: Steve Jobs and his black turtlenecks are legendary).

She is now working less hours, is more effective, and her weeks are no longer overwhelmed by ‘emergencies’, but are balanced with strategic deliverables that may not be urgent, but are vital to her impact as a leader.