The Myth of Multitasking


While it's enticing to think that we could all get more done if we could simply find a way to




(and more)


often times the result is just as painful and unattractive as the process. True, an individual, team, or project can maintain multiple streams of work at once, but the notion that all work is addressed and executed in parallel is a blatant misconception, and a dangerous one at that. The reality is that work — at all levels — is processed serially. I'm going to say that again, because it's a point too easily brushed passed. Work...wait for it (and hear it this time) processed serially. One thing at a time. Not two things, or three or four. Work is addressed one thing at a time, until another thing comes along, but only until we revert back to the original thing, or actually, until we jump to this new thing coming up next, or wait, this other new thing that's all of a sudden due tomorrow, but wait, what about that second thing we'd started, where did we leave off on that, and was it due soon too, or, shoot, wait, what were we talking about?


Unsatisfied with the structure, and ultimate output, of that run-on sentence? See the chaos? Feel the anxiety? Me too. Now imagine how your team feels when you ask them to commit similar treasons on their acuities, abilities, and ultimately, professional integrities.

If we're stubborn, and if we insist on swaddling our minds in a blanket of fallacy, the best we can do is oscillate from task to task, moving back and forth as quickly and fluidly as possible, attempting to make consistent progress and complete all threads in a relatively short amount of time. On a small enough scale, yes, this can be realized (sometimes). Once the work grows to a certain level of complexity or volume, however, the myth of multitasking is shattered by the realities of dependencies, technical challenges, lack of business clarity, new information, changes in priorities, shifts in the market, etc. As we attempt to accelerate projects by adding more tasks to a resource, more resources to a team, or more teams to a project, we in turn see the rapid decline of progress as we reach a critical mass of multitasking white noise. Quite quickly, a set of tasks that would have taken a certain amount of time, if executed serially, are delayed beyond recognition as teams struggle with challenges of limited availability, the deadly embraces of dependencies, or the downstream effects of other tasks being executed in parallel.

At its best, this approach will yield mediocre results. At its worst, all work will be subjugated by this heathenish exercise. And in all cases, the people involved will feel exhausted, utterly disenchanted, and terribly taken advantage of. This does not a sustainable culture make. Instead, the ultimate zen of a one-track-mind is exactly what you, your team, and your project need. And like most things serendipitous, the simple act of acknowledging this truth will throw a master switch of light and positivity for everyone involved in your work.

People, in general, crave focus. And for reasons unknown to me, too much of the business world is contrived to steal them of this necessity. That's our fault, not theirs. Individuals need (and enjoy) time devoted to a single task in order to make solid progress. And with that progress comes the feeling of achievement. And with that, of course, comes higher morale and a happier, more productive team. This is the natural order of human productivity: to identify a worthy task; to set out to achieve that task; and to have the freedom, inspiration, and support to do just that. If, instead, an individual is laden with ambiguous direction, saddled with obstacles and meandering tangents, and utterly diffused with competing priorities, how can we expect them to succeed? If those of us who lead teams can't foster and enable our people, who else is to blame but us?

We must instead thrive on focus. We must make a currency of single-tasking. We need to ask our people to do great big things and then get out of the way so they can follow through. No, of course we can't expect people to insulate themselves from a stack of work on their desks. And yes, we are going to need our teams to apply themselves to more than one task, or stream of work, or project at any given time. And of course, there will always be exceptions; it's absurd to expect absolute rigidity in an uncompromisingly fluid world. But all that aside, yes, we can — and should — require our people to devote focus to their work. And the more we can enable them to apply dedicated, targeted, and uninterrupted focus, the more we'll bear witness to the great big things we've asked them to achieve.

Jonathan Kerrs is a product development consultant based in New York City. Aside from his penchant for internal process improvement and habitual optimism, he’s actually a pretty normal guy. Tell him how great he is.