Sep 4, 2007

The "multitasking" delusion

As companies cut tens of thousands of jobs, they always say they’ll cut out a similar amount of work. But tell me – do you have more work now than you did five years ago? Can you concentrate on one or two major commitments, or are you on more teams than ever? Does loyalty or ambition make you volunteer for more than you can handle? Reportedly, 45% of us think we’re being asked to work on too many things at once.

I’ve always felt juggling a lot of projects was not a problem – as long as I had someone to hand them off to. Truth be told, it was probably adult ADD and a short attention span that made me much better at starting something up than carrying it out. But that didn’t help the poor people I burdened with the projects I thought should go forward.

What’s the answer? Multitasking, of course. “Multitasking” is a word that originated with computer systems that seemed to be able to get more than one thing done at one time. If you were running accounts receivables, it was a help to be able to produce sales reports as well, and the old computers couldn’t serve more than one client. Then they could. But the dirty little secret is that computers still do only one thing at a time. They’re just really good at switching without forgetting where they were when they go back to the job that was interrupted.

Studies at University of Michigan, MIT, UC Irvine, and NASA, however, have shown that humans are pretty lousy at making rapid shifts in attention, especially when thinking is required. A white paper published this year by Herman Miller says that multitasking isn’t getting more work done – it’s actually been shown to reduce the amount of productive work a person can do. And it’s being blames for stress-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety, further reducing our ability to get stuff done.

Social effects are noticeable too. New Ford boss Alan Mulally forbids even top execs to bring Blackberrys to meetings. Watching somebody texting away while you’re trying to carry on a discussion can be pretty annoying. Interestingly enough, the multitasker thinks he or she is doing something important, while others in the room think the multitasker is rude. Until they get a text message THEY think is important, that is.

Take a look at the report for yourself – it’s worth it. The next time you get asked to do more with less, brandish it about and see if it does you any good. Delusions are hard to break, though.

See “The siren song of multitasking” at

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Anonymous said...


This is a truism that will not change! Thanks having the courage to say it out loud.

Chris said...

Thanks for sharing.

People texting/emailing in meetings is very annoying and rude.

For me multitasking is normally doing more that one job at once, not the fullest of your ability.

Copyright @ 2005-2014 by Karen Wilhelm