Ah, the joy and satisfaction of multitasking. You can do your laundry, watch a TV show, prepare an expense report and brainstorm ideas on new marketing campaigns all at the same time. What a great way to save time and get more done!
Yeah, right. The problem is that we’re not robots.
On paper, multitasking is a great idea – you can use the same block of time to complete more than one task or activity. As a reformed chronic multitasker, I now realize that the only way to effectively multitask is by carefully choosing which tasks can be automated and which ones can’t.
My strategy is to automate the manual, repetitive tasks but not attempt to automate the strategic ones. By programming technology to complete mundane duties, I’m then freed to focus higher level cognitive and creative abilities – those capabilities that are distinctively human – to complete important, creative or strategic activities.
But that’s not the way we usually multitask. Chronic multitaskers are frustrated that we can’t program ourselves to complete several tasks at once – regardless of whether their natures are repetitive or strategic. After all, if computers can do that, then it follows that we (the ones who created the computers) should be able to multitask, too.
But humans aren’t computers, so we physically and psychologically can’t do many things at once. Well, we can – but often they are not done that well. Whatever we are doing, part of our attention is diverted to something else, so we’re not directing 100% of our energies and creativity to complete the task at hand.
In other words, multitaskers tend to engage in presenteeism – a phenomenon where even though we are physically in a place, mentally and psychologically we’re really not there. You know the symptoms: the uncomfortable pauses or lost lines of thought when you’re talking to an employee about her performance while planning for an upcoming client meeting.
How effective are you in this situation really? You probably realize that neither task has your full concentration – and lack of concentration leads to repetition and lost opportunities. The presenteeism that is associated with multitasking leads to miscommunication and misunderstandings.
I’m all for automating routine, repetitive, nonstrategic activities. But I no longer try to multitask when I’m involved in an important, strategic or creative project. By single-tasking, I’ve become more efficient because I get things done faster and (more importantly) to a higher standard.
I also engage in serial single-tasking. I’ll give myself a break at different times on a lengthy assignment by stopping work at an appropriate stopping point, moving on to another task that uses a different type of brain activity, then moving back to the original task. It’s a great practice that helps build mindfulness, reduce stress and enhance job satisfaction.