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 http://www.executive-velocity.com  or  http://executivevelocityblog.com or follow her on twitter at SrExecAdvisor.