The Fallacy of Multitasking

Last week in The Power of Saying NO we covered how to free up your time and energy for more productive activities by making more frequent use of the word “no”. By saying “no” to the constant requests for help, participation, interaction and other forms of engagement others will draw us into, we can keep ourselves focused on our main goals.

Today I want to cover another common time and energy drain–multitasking. This has to be one of the most over worked phrases in the English language, and perhaps the most draining of all activities. What it mostly implies is that in order to be efficient, we need to spread ourselves wide and thin to do the jobs of several people.

It’s easy to see why multitasking is popular with employers—the more jobs they can get fewer people to do, the less staff they need. That translates to lower payroll and, in theory at least, a healthier bottom line.

But here’s what multitasking does to the individual and, by extension, to the organization:

  • Creates an environment of perpetual interruption
  • Makes personal and organizational goals harder to reach
  • Dilutes (or even erases at the extreme) primary job functions
  • Generates needless stress
  • Eliminates specialization, or the efficient matching of jobs with personal talent
  • Creates confusion—if everyone does every job in the organization, who should be doing which job and when?
  • Transfers responsibility for all functions to the highest performers, who become bogged down covering every job rather than the one they were hired to do.

Is that any way run your department? Is that any way to run your business or your career? The goal of every manager, business owner, and employee needs to be to make their primary function the primary function!

Why can’t I make more money, or, Why isn’t my business or department more profitable?

Here’s a clue…if you’re a salesman, you have to sell; if you’re a writer, you have to write; if you’re an accountant, you have to be crunching numbers. The more time and energy spent doing something other than your primary activity, the less progress you’ll make in your career and the less income you’ll earn.

If you’re a manager or business owner and you’re staff is busy fielding customer service calls, filling out reports, attending meetings or planning the next company outing, it should come as no surprise that they aren’t being more productive in their primary jobs. How does that look in the bottom line?

The most important thing any of us can do in any income earning situation we’re involved in is to spend the majority of our best time working in the functions that are most important—and most profitable. Identify the one or two things that you do that are most profitable and concentrate on those first and foremost.

To the degree that we’re drawn away from these functions, our bottom line will suffer.

In his classic book, Looking Out For #1, author and motivational speaker Robert Ringer wrote:

“Get rid of all the garbage and excess baggage and get down to where it’s all at: profit is directly related to the number of uncluttered, creative hours one has at his disposal.

Concentration…fortunes are built on it—or lost by the lack of it. Multitasking usually has a big, fat hand in the latter.

Daring to concentrate on what it is we do best

Hockey legend Bobby Hull was sometimes accused of “floating”, that is, not giving 100% of his best effort 100% of the time. Capable of incredible bursts of game-dominating drives, he often chose to do significantly less. Now one of the things that had to be admired about Hull—call it a “Hull-ism”—was his ability to articulate what it was he did that made him great, even in the face of criticism. I don’t think it was arrogance, but brutal honesty of the sort we all need to take heed of.

Hull responded that he was a goal scorer, that that’s what people came to see him do, and that’s what it was that he concentrated his efforts on. Back checking, playing defense, or chasing the puck into the corners wouldn’t make his game better–it would drain his energy and prevent him from doing what it was he did best. His performance over his very long career was a testimony to the effectiveness of his conviction.

I have a strong sense that anyone who’s great in any endeavor is doing something very similar, whether or not they can even define what it is. The fact is that even people who are superstars in their fields, don’t have unlimited time and energy. Their greatness is defined by their ability to allocate their time, energy and talents where they’ll have the greatest impact.

Freeing ourselves from the Multitasking Monster

OK, we’re not professional athletes, and no one is soliciting our opinions on how to be great. But how can we be greater at what it is we do than what we are now? By minimizing the paralyzing affects of multitasking from our work lives!

Try one or more of these:

  1. Identify the functions in your job, business or career that are most productive and make them your priority. Nothing else you do will have a greater impact on your career or your ability to make money.
  2. If necessary, make a list of all of your job functions, assigning the highest priority to the most productive, and work down from there. Create a hierarchy that will be a personal mission statement that keeps you on track. Avoid allowing yourself to get lost in busyness.
  3. If some degree of multitasking is necessary, block out “quiet time” to do your most productive functions. Set it up to coincide with the most productive time of your day, what ever that is.
  4. Conversely, run your day with most of your time and effort concentrating on your most productive functions, but block an hour or two to take care of the rest. Try to make it at a point in the day when it will have the least impact on your main productivity.
  5. ”Do something great—before lunch time”—I forget who said this, but it’s virtually transformational. I know everyone has different peak production times during the course of the day, but by doing your best, most productive work early in the day, somehow the rest of the day just flows more smoothly. A sales friend of mine refers to this as “make the dreaded call first”—as a salesman, customer contact is the most important thing you do, and the whole day can go better if you make your sales calls first thing. Try it!
  6. If you’re a manager or business owner with staff, hire one or two people to cover the multitasking functions—that ability is a talent by itself and should be respected as such. By doing so, you’ll free others to do the jobs they were hired to do. Do you think that might help your bottom line?

Maybe we can’t free ourselves completely from multitasking at some level, but we do need to be intentional at limiting its control over us. Our future success depends on it.

Is multitasking a problem in your job or business? Do you think it’s inescapable? What are you doing to control it?

6 Responses to The Fallacy of Multitasking

  1. I have nothing against doing several things at one time – believe me, sometimes that is the only way to get important stuff done. The problem I have is when the “important” stuff is being ignored or not being done “correctly” – so over going into businesses and have the cashier talking to a co-worker, ringing up my stuff and texting. LOL, and you know I do not go back to that place unless I have no choice. Now I do run across cashiers (I use to be one at Wal-Mart) when you have to be doing several things at one time to keep your job – but that is when you figure out the best way to get it all done. Great subject!

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  2. Hi Angela – You said it perfectly with “The problem I have is when the “important” stuff is being ignored or not being done “correctly”. I think that’s what we get caught up in when we try to do too much.

    You’re right, sometimes we do have to juggle several jobs at once, but that shouldn’t be the rule. The really important jobs need to come first, and get our best effort. I think that when we don’t, those are the times we feel out of control.

  3. I would hate to multitasking when I’m at work. And for me it’s dangerous since I could bring down a server by accident (others in my department have done this very thing).

    Basically, I can only multitask when I have activities that requires no thought or close to no thought involvement. For instance, I’ll listen to audiobooks when I’m going to and from work.

    If I try to multitask 2 or more complex activities, it all comes crashing down or at a minimum, I make mistakes that shouldn’t happen.

  4. MR – That’s why I like the idea of doing your main job most of the time, then grouping the multitasking functions into time blocks. It frees you to concentrate on the most productive functions, and if you make a mistake with the multitasking jobs, it might not be such a disaster.

    Most of us are good at one or two things, and when we get beyond them we’re skating where the ice is thin. I think this is where a lot of mistakes are made too. As Angela said in her comment, the important stuff gets ignored in favor of everything else.

  5. Hi, Kevin — Agreed. There are going to be tasks that you’re the only one that can handle. If you’re dealing with a lot of tasks that take away from this — especially if there are others that can do take on these tasks — you won’t be able to contribute to the level you could or should be. Sure, tasks are being accomplished, but not the ones that you need to handle most.

    And again, you’ll likely never be free of multitasking, but finding ways of limiting it can help you focus and actually produce more.

  6. Chris – I agree that we’ll never be fully free of multitasking, but by the same token I think it’s gotten out of hand. In many, many job capacities it’s become the expected norm. I think it’s a major cause of stress and burnout. If you can’t do the job you’re supposed to do then a sense of being adrift kicks in and that’s where the disconnect begins. Too many people plugging too many holes when a new dam needs to be built. (Not the best analogy, but I think you get the picture 😉 )

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