Multitasking = Inefficiency?

I’ve always been a fan of multitasking.  There’s a certain pride that comes with being able to multitask, or multitask well.  “Walk and chew gum at the same time” as the old saying goes.  With that said, I don’t think it’s a certainty that multitasking allows a person to be more efficient or productive.

First, I think multitasking has its value, but it comes from one type of scenario – having multiple tasks to perform, all with competing deadlines, where progress, not completion, is important.  Let me break this down for you.
Let’s say you have three tasks to complete.  For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use basic, non-work related tasks.  Your three “tasks” are:

1) Prepare dinner (not cook it – just prepare it)
2) Watch a baseball game
3) Call back your mother

In this scenario, you can bread your chicken, follow your baseball game with the TV muted, and talk to your mother on the phone with a hands-free device.  None of these requires focus or completion.  You’re not cooking the dinner – you’re just breading the chicken.  It’s only 3:00 on Saturday, so no one is sitting there waiting for dinner to be done.  The baseball game is on, but you don’t need to watch it like a hawk.  You can see every other at-bat, monitor the score, and catch replays if something exciting happens when you’re looking away.  Your mother isn’t looking for a two hour conversation – she just wanted you to call her back so she could rant to you about how the dog chewed up a piece of furniture.

As you can see, none of these tasks needs to be taken to completion – the chicken will be cooked later, you don’t need to see the whole baseball game (if you miss the end, you can check the scores and highlights online later), and the call with your mother will end as soon as you want it to.  You have successfully mutitasked – accomplished three tasks at once – without really diminishing the “value” that any of the tasks provides for you.

However, when you get into more serious tasks that require attention and timely completion, I think multitasking can become an issue.  While performing each individual task has a productive outcome, simultaneous performance effectively makes each task a distraction.  Let’s look at another three-task scenario with more complex tasks mixed in:

1) Researching the tax implications of a foreign entity acquiring a US entity
2) Writing an email to a co-worker unrelated to your research
3) Organizing your desk / filing away papers / etc.

In this case, progress is not good enough.  Completion is the value-added stage.  If you don’t research enough to come to any conclusions or gain any leads on further areas to research, you haven’t yet provided value.  An incomplete email is worthless because it cannot yet be sent.  Only task #3 is valuable when not yet complete, but only partially completing this task is not efficient.  You’re better off taking out an hour to organize your desk when you’re not busy, instead of six 10-minute intervals mixed in with more important work.

If, instead of multitasking, you spend a focused, one-hour period doing your research (ignoring all other tasks), you are probably more likely to reach a timely conclusion.  If you spend 10 minutes focusing only on your email, you’ll finish it quicker and it’ll probably make more sense to the recipient.

The overall point of this post overlaps well with my recent focus on batching. Batching aims to group similar tasks to gain efficiency.  Multitasking, in many cases, causes you to group unrelated tasks, effectively creating productive distractions (I just made that phrase up and I’m not sure it makes sense).  In other words, you’re still getting stuff done, but not at an optimal level and possibly at a lower quality.

I’m not saying it never makes sense to multitask.  It works great with certain tasks, and horrible with others.  Before you try to walk and chew gum at the same time, perhaps you should make sure you know where you’re going first.

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2 Responses to “Multitasking = Inefficiency?”

  1. When most people refer to multitasking they mean simultaneously performing two or more things that require mental effort and attention. When we speak of multitasking, what we really mean is that we are switchtasking: switching rapidly between one task and another. Yet, each time we switch, no matter how quickly that switch takes place in our mind, there is a cost associated with it. It’s an economic term called switching cost—and the switching cost is high.

    [Reply]

  2. When most people refer to multitasking they mean simultaneously performing two or more things that require mental effort and attention. When we speak of multitasking, what we really mean is that we are switchtasking: switching rapidly between one task and another. Yet, each time we switch, no matter how quickly that switch takes place in our mind, there is a cost associated with it. It’s an economic term called switching cost—and the switching cost is high.

    To learn more about the effects of multitasking, take my free exercise at []

    [Reply]

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