Stop Multitasking – Start Multi-Achieving©

Let’s just get it on the table. Some or many of you will NOT like this article and will immediately want to reject it. However, I invite you to hang in there for a moment or two and be willing to be open to a different perspective on multitasking. Our culture seems desperate to embrace multitasking as a badge of honor, but conscious leaders understand that multitasking is an obstacle to the flow. They also know that multitasking does not actually exist, despite the term’s active use as part of our cultural lexicon and its inclusion on many a job description.

Dave Crenshaw, in The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done (Jossey-Bass 2008), laments:

“It’s become a heroic word in our vocabulary. There’s a cultural pressure to multitask; that’s a big part of why people do it. We have all been taught that we can be efficient; we can be productive by being multitaskers. Never mind that this is just not true.”

The research continues to debunk the myth of multitasking, more correctly identifying the truth that the brain cannot multitask.

While it may seem that you are doing two things at once, you are more accurately utilizing (although to your disservice) the power of the brain to switch back and forth rapidly between two or more tasks. You are not multitasking, but rather switching your concentration back and forth at such a high rate of speed that it seems like multitasking (because your brain cannot comprehend the speed). The research term for this practice is task switching.

According to a 2012 article published in Psychology Today (“The True Cost of Multi-Tasking” by Susan Weinschenk), multitasking (actually task switching) costs us up to 40% of our productivity. The article goes on to cite several costs of attempted multitasking:

  • It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between them than if you do them one at a time.
  • You make more errors when you switch than if you do one task at a time.
  • If the tasks are complex then these time and error penalties increase.
  • Each task switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity.

The article concludes as follows: “We are pretty good at switching back and forth quickly, so we THINK we are actually multi-tasking, but in reality we are not.”

Some time ago, I saw a statistic that the cost of a distraction—stopping what you are focused on to do something else—has a multiplier effect of 6-7 times. In other words, for every one minute that you leave your focused task to do something else (e.g. read an email, answer a phone call, have a conversation,  etc.), it takes you six or seven minutes to get back to the focus level you had achieved before the distraction. There is ample and ongoing research into the impacts and costs of these distractions.

If you’re still hanging onto the illusion of multitasking as a positive effectiveness tool, tell me this: What would you / do you tell your children when they want to watch television while they are doing homework? That’s what I thought!

When you attempt to multitask, you most certainly are failing to focus. Stated in the positive, when you try to multitask you are choosing to not focus. Do you really believe that you are functioning at your most productive and most effective when you are not focused? Think about that statement. How can you perform at your best when you are not focused?

However, there is one form of “multi” that I highly encourage and which conscious leaders purposefully inject into their daily strategies. Enter the leadership strategy of multi-achieving. Simply stated, multi-achieving is the outcome (not an activity) that occurs when you intentionally engage in activities that serve you in multiple ways or achieve multiple outcomes. I was first introduced to this concept by the business thought leader Nido Qubein, who shared that a key reason that he can be effective in so many endeavors (President of High Point University, highly sought after speaker, author, corporate Board member, philanthropist and Chairman of Great Harvest Bread Company) is that he purposely seeks to do things that support multiple aspects of his business or life. For example, when he is hired to speak, he regularly talks about his role as President of High Point University (thus helping with fund-raising and student recruitment) and shares stories about Great Harvest Bread Company. In other words, one activity positively impacts multiple endeavors.

Similarly, as I mentioned in a recent newsletter article, there are many ways that I invest my time that serve me (personally and professionally) in multiple areas, thereby leveraging the investment of my time. This concept—leveraging and investing my time—is very different from a vain attempt at multitasking. Another way to accomplish multi-achieving is to make the best use of your meetings, whether inside or outside of the office, by having a clear agenda in mind for the valuable time you are investing in the meeting. Without the agenda—and being thoughtful about your meetings in advance—you will certainly miss the opportunities for multi-achievement.

Think about the ways that you spend your time. If you are a proclaimed multitasker, I encourage you to think about the impact that failing to focus has on your productivity. More importantly, are you doing things that will impact multiple areas of your business or life? Are you looking for the opportunities to do one thing, but achieve multiple outcomes? Your leadership and impact will most positively be impacted by what you achieve, rather than by what you do. Multitasking is about doing. Multi-achieving is about accomplishing and creating impact.

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