Paradigm Shifter #35: Single-tasking is better than multi-tasking
For greater efficiency and financial profitability, many companies now expect their human resources to be able to multi-task in ways that are comparable to the feats made possible by artificial intelligence.
Instead of harnessing technology, it has instead become our 24/7/365 master. We tend to expect that we can accomplish multiple tasks not just simultaneously, but also at the speed of our computers and mobile devices. If not, we think that there must be a problem with us.
But the real problem is that many of us ignore the needs and limitations of being human. We are not wired like computers. We are not programmable robots. And that is ultimately a very good thing.
The drive to not only do more with less but also to do it faster is fertile ground for our misguided attempts at multi-tasking. The primary issue is that there is often very little consideration of the nature of the tasks themselves when we multi-task: each task is simply a line item on our ever-increasing “To Do” lists.
Recent studies have shown that interruptions (either by others or self-imposed through the process of multi-tasking) actually interfere with our ability to concentrate and ultimately slow down our progress. In other words, we actually waste time when we try to do too much because our brains need time to re-group in order to “pick up where we left off.”
Any “time savings” or efficiencies achieved from simultaneously working on tasks that involve critical thinking or creativity are thus undermined by the reduced quality or effectiveness of our completion of each task.
So, if the tasks require critical thinking, creativity, decision making, and/or learning, then we shouldn’t multi-task!
There a few other things that I’ve noticed about multi-tasking:
- Multi-tasking destroys mindfulness. We’re not totally “present” in anything that we’re doing because we are trying to simultaneously compartmentalize and control competing thoughts and goals. The likelihood of breakthrough, “a ha!” moments is severely limited.
- We overlook some of the most important concepts or aspects of our tasks. Because we’re not present in the moment (i.e., fully concentrating), we tend to skim over documents or conversations. Then we berate ourselves for missing the “obvious.”
- We also miss the important nuances. Since both the devil and the serendipitous discoveries are found in the details, we lose the opportunity to notice either.
- Finally, multi-tasking tends to draw out projects beyond the time that they should reasonably take to complete. We have a false sense of accomplishment because we completed 25% of five different projects even though we haven’t 100% completed any of them!
However, there is one type of multi-tasking that I believe can be very effective. Multi-tasking via technology works precisely because it isn’t really multi-tasking. Instead, it is actually a form of technological delegation. The “grunt work” is done by technology, leaving us free to concentrate, analyze, ponder, and use our creativity to solve higher level, more complex problems.
In my own life, single-tasking actually increases my productivity in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness. Maybe that’s because I’m fully focused and using all of my resources to get something 100% done. By saying “yes” to this particular project or task, I can more readily say “no” to other competing interests.
What about you: is your multi-tasking propelling you toward the goals that you want to achieve OR is it undermining your path to success?
- Look at your past history. How effective have you really been when you tried to do too many things at the same time?
- Which of your key projects have you actually completed? Did the completed projects meet your expected standards?
- How many other projects have “fallen through the cracks” because your attention was focused elsewhere?
- Have any 6-month projects turned into 5-year odysseys?
- Of the projects that are still partially completed, how much time would it actually take to finally check this project off your “To Do” list?
- Are you willing to at least try single-tasking and see what happens?
While everybody works differently, it is critical that we understand and appreciate the most conducive environment and tools needed for us to do our best work. Single-tasking requires prioritizing what is important – then taking the time to focus on completing the task at hand.
Although it’s against the “norm” of our multi-tasking society, maybe it’s time to be a maverick and try single-tasking in order to achieve the goals and success that we really want.
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout: Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.