Leadership Cancers #2: The insanity of multitasking

by Gary Monti on March 23, 2010

Doing more with less is a message that bombards us every day. Pushing that approach beyond reasonable limits creates a false reality that can be summed in one word – multitasking.

The belief in multitasking is so rampant we see it in commercials supposedly showing busy mothers optimizing their time. Is this really possible? Is there more to be squeezed out from a given situation? Let’s examine the reality of multitasking by first defining it, looking at the consequences of trying to achieve it, the reality of what it takes to complete tasks, and then conclude by examining a possible option for increasing effectiveness.

What Is Multitasking?

Multitasking is giving someone less time than is needed to complete a task. An example of multitasking is giving a person 8 hours to get two 8-hour tasks completed. Can you see the craziness?

To try and make this situation work one or both of the following assumptions must be embraced:

  1. Whoever did the estimating is incompetent, or;
  2. Whoever is doing the work has been sandbagging and holding back capabilities.

Neither of these options bodes well for the individual or the organization. Let’s go a little deeper and look at the consequences.

The Consequences

The malignancy of multitasking can be summed in one word – shame. For multitasking to work someone must be viewed as not being good enough. Either the estimator has lost touch with reality or the person doing the task has been lazy. So, for multitasking to work someone has to be put down. A good reference for the organizational damage caused by this and other insane behaviors is New Times Best Seller by Robert Sutton, The No Asshole Rule. It gives good examples of the consequences of shame-based management styles.

The Reality of Completing Tasks

Many of us can and do multitask. It is an interesting neurological phenomenon you can experience every day. It occurs because the brain off-loads repetitive tasks to the spinal cord. What’s an example? The ability to walk and chew gum at the same time!

There is a trade-off here. Notice that the multitasking is with highly repetitive tasks. What about problems professionals get paid to solve? Problem solving require thinking – use of the frontal lobes. The span of thought reduces to one task at a time and one task alone.

Some readers are saying, ”Wait a minute! I have simultaneous tasks open all the time.” If you look closer what you will see is something called micro-bookmarking, i.e., shifting from task to task to task. I know. It is how I work at times. While stimulating, it still is doing one thing at a time just in a task-rich environment.

A Healthier Option

So, what works? The answer is simple and difficult. It is contained in one word, “Schedule.” Good scheduling requires accepting the reality of the situation and whether or not a limit has been reached. If it has, the difficulty kicks in.

Letting go of multitasking requires letting go of the expectation there somehow are enough resources to get what we want. This just isn’t always true. It is a reality that, as humans, we just don’t want to accept. This desire to hold on makes it easy to blame ourselves or someone else and feel if they would just work harder everything would be okay. But, as Buddha said, “Attachment is the source of suffering” which brings us back to the harm Sutton talks about.

This all points in one direction – take the risk of letting go. The irony is that there actually isn’t any risk because the belief that multitasking works is an illusion. There isn’t any real gain to be had by trying to multitask, just loss.

If you would like to delve deeper into scheduling and its use in leadership send me an e-mail at gwmonti@mac.com or visit www.ctrchg.com.

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