Thursday, November 10, 2011

Multi-Tasking: Is It Worth It?

Here's a guest post from one of my regulars, Beth Armknecht Miller. It's great advice - what a simple yet powerful way to improve your leadership effectiveness and relationships!

Multi-Tasking: Is It Worth It?

You see it at work. You drop by an employee’s workspace to discuss a current project and she continues to work on the computer while you are having the discussion. How do you feel as the person continues to “multi-task”?

Alternately, you are at home and your spouse is in the kitchen preparing dinner or loading the dishwasher. You start a conversation with him or her and they continue on with their task at hand while conversing with you. Did they really understand what you said? Did they really hear you?

So, you do see the behavior. Do you also find yourself part of this multi-tasking phenomenon? Multi-tasking, for many people in this ever changing and demanding world, has become a badge of pride. I can’t tell you how many executives I have worked with who actually believe that multi-tasking increases their productivity.

It Doesn’t Increase Productivity

Yet, research shows just the opposite. Back in 2001, in the article "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching," found in the Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, Vol 27. No.4, Joshua S. Rubinstein of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and David E. Meyer and Jeffrey E. Evans of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan conducted a study which “revealed that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. Because time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs were also greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.”

In a 2007 New York Times article, Jonathan B. Spira, an analyst at the business research firm Basex, estimated that extreme multitasking costs the U.S. economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity.

And a recent (September 2009) article from the Harvard Business School (HBS) references another study from Stanford University that supports the 2001 study. This article also suggests that while single-tasking is probably not totally practical in the 21st century, we should instead consider focusing on the value of each task, rather than focusing on the number of tasks to be completed.

Multi-Tasking Effects on Interpersonal Relationship

And even if you don’t believe this scientific evidence which shows that multi-tasking does not save you time, think about the other effects it has. What message are you sending to the people with whom you are multi-tasking? They probably wonder what is more important than the discussion they are trying to have with you. They may even think that you are just being rude.

I agree with the HBS conclusion that it is difficult to move to single-tasking, BUT only when the multi-tasking does not involve interpersonal communications with another individual.

So how can you change your multi-tasking behavior when you are confronted with someone wanting your attention?

Set aside time during each day when you will not multi-task. At this time focus on only one task or one person. When someone approaches you for a conversation and you are in a time crunch, let the individual know either, that you only have a specific amount of time to speak due to a work-related deadline, or offer them the opportunity to come back at the specific time you have set aside each day for single-tasking. This is the time when you can give them your undivided attention. However, if you do have time to speak with them when they first approach you, then turn away from your computer and put your PDA and cell phone on silent so you aren’t tempted to multi-task.

Giving your employees, team members, family, and friends your undivided attention during an important conversation will build stronger relationships by increasing understanding, decreasing stress, and increasing respect. Managing multi-tasking will also increase your productivity and will model appropriate behavior to other employees. With these benefits in mind, what’s keeping you from starting to manage your multi-tasking behavior?

Beth Armknecht Miller, of Atlanta, Georgia, is Founder and President of Executive Velocity, a leadership development advisory firm accelerating the leadership success of CEOs and business leaders. She is also a Vistage Chair and Executive Coach. She is certified in Myers Briggs and Hogan leadership assessment tools and is a Certified Managerial Coach by Kennesaw State University. Visit  or or follow her on twitter at SrExecAdvisor.


Mike said...

Very helpful post. I agree that it is difficult in today's fast paced world to avoid multi-tasking. The solution seems to be setting aside "closed door" time to get a number of pressing issues done and when not in this mode, stop to listen and interact with your staff.

clayton said...

Beth, great post. I love this quote - "Giving your employees, team members, family, and friends your undivided attention during an important conversation will build stronger relationships by increasing understanding, decreasing stress, and increasing respect."

Check out this short video on how not to give undivided attention.

Paul Nicholas said...

This is an interesting article - thank you.
I've really had enough from colleagues who believe they can multitask.
It's about time we all realised that brains constantly work by multitasking but minds never do.

Claybaby said...

Thank you so much for this post. I have always thought, as a woman, I am supposed to multi task to get the most done as possible. Your comment about giving those around you your total attention is the permission I needed to stop and do one thing at a time. Not only will the illiminate some of the stress in my life but show the repect and attention each task and person in my life deserves. I can't wait to begin this process. I have found myself at times walking away from someone giving instructions. I will stop from now on and give each person and task the undivided attention it needs.

Access Employee Database said...

This is very helpfull indeed! Multitasking requires a great deal of mental discipline and presence of mind. Otherwise, it can be disastrous!

Beth Armknecht Miller said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments. I wanted to clarify multi-tasking after reading an article promoting multi-tasking in HBR recently. Their definition is focused on working multiple projects in parallel not tasks. Projects are very different than tasks. Tasks are individual in nature while projects generally involve multiple people. Thus multi-tasking will impact your relationships at work and home because of the interference in personal communications.

acting coaches ny said...

Beth, great post. I love this quote - "Giving your employees, team members, family, and friends your undivided attention during an important conversation will build stronger relationships by increasing understanding, decreasing stress, and increasing respect."

Marcy Krumbine said...

I completely agree with you. Multi-tasking is not productive. I had a manager who would continue to type on the computer when his staff came in to talk with him. He also did the same thing during management meetings. To a person, members complained that they didn't feel that he listened to them. If I am working on the computer when someone comes in to talk, I usually ask them to have a seat and allow me the time to finish my task (email or document) so I can give them my undivided attention. In personal relationships, people feel the same way. Your children, spouse, significant other need to know you are listening and they are being heard. Good article!

Edgy air traveler. Seriously edgy. said...

The clarification or spin I would put on Beth's observation is that it is less "multi-tasking" and more "uni-tasking on something more interesting than you at this instant". The proliferation of smart phones has made this remarkably common in meetings and conversations. You are engaged one on one and suddenly the person pulls out their Blackberry and starts reading their messages. It says "whatever just came in on the BB might be more interesting than you are, so I'll tune you out for just a bit to make sure"

What's interesting is how this practice differs depending on gender. I find that when men do this to men, it is accepted/tolerated/normalized but when men do it to women it is the highest order of rudeness and offensive behaviour from the woman's perspective. I almost never see women do it to men. There is something cultural in this issue, beyond the mere capability to work on multiple things at once.

Is it possible it is all about the progressive erosion of basic human respect, more than the technology, the tools, or the emerging practice of multi-tasking?