Multitasking Monster

Multitasking like Waste

“Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time”  – Steve Uzzell
 
There have been too many articles written about multitasking and too many researches done. Many people multitask and while it may work for some, it may not be so successful for others. I’m not going to convince you to multitask or not. It’s up to you to decide. 
 
That being said “It has been estimated that $650 billion[1] a year is wasted in US businesses due to multitasking.” 
 
I would like to share a few ideas of the different ways of multitasking and why some people can’t handle it well. 
 
The first type of multitasking I call pure multitasking. It is when a person does multiple things at the same time such as talking on the phone, reading emails and listening to music. Some scientific research claims that humans can improve in multitasking but it would not be a great improvement and it certainly doesn’t work for everyone. Some research states that your brain switches between tasks when we multitask. But, I’m not going to spend a lot of your time and time to talk about this. When I think I can multitask I try to imagine myself skiing from a mountain at a speed over 100km an hour on a black trail and checking my emails at the same time. Or, I’m on a surgical table with my chest wide open and the surgeon decides to take a selfie and post it on Facebook or Twitter during my serious operation. This probably will never happen, but I’m sure you’ve gotten the point. 
The second type of multitasking is much more interesting. It is used by people who understand that pure multitasking is impossible to do but they still are trying to juggle multiple tasks by switching between them during a short period of time. I call this pseudo multitasking. It is the same way a single core computer processor works. The processor processes one task then another even if the previous task is not completely done. The speed of the processor is so fast these days that it creates a sort of illusion of processing multiple tasks at the same time. A multiple core processor can work multiple tasks at the same time but the communication with the memory or hard drive is still happening in sequence. A lot of people try to imitate a single core processor. They are trying to work on their tasks very quickly and in sequence. 
 
Juggling Clown
The point here is that your working speed has a limit. Let’s take a step back and look at a clown juggling five tennis balls. Then he has added one more. Now he has to throw each ball a little bit height to acquire more time before the balls return to his hands. Every time he adds another ball it has to go higher and have a higher velocity. But, after a certain number the clown can’t add any more balls because he can’t throw the balls high enough. Some clowns may have a 20 ball limit, some 30, but everyone has their limit. Another thing is that he has to throw the balls using more energy. Using more energy makes him tire faster. The same goes for multitasking. You have a limitation and the more you try to do the faster you will get tired. 
 
Modern devices and computer technologies help to increase your speed but even that has its own limitation too. The number of tasks you have in your working bucket list is always more than you can handle. 
 
Another potential issue of doing things fast is that you won’t have time to finish the task. This will lead to more work and more actions later. You may find yourself correcting or fixing your previous actions with new ones hence spending more time on the same task.
 

Task delivery time when multitasking

 
When people attempt to complete many tasks at one time, “or [alternate] rapidly between them, errors go way up and it takes far longer—often double the time or more—to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially,” states Meyer.
 
It is more likely that you will spend more time per task by working on multiple things at the same time. Even if you spend the same amount of time, the delivery time will be much later than it would be if you finish each separate task before moving on to the next. 
 
How to see your progress? A very good way to see is by using a cumulative flow diagram. It will show you how many tasks are in progress and what is the lead (delivery duration) for each task or project. 
 
Multitasking Cumulative Flow Diagram
 

How to start using it?

 
It’s very simple. First you have to record the time you’ve spend working on each task. If the task work assumes multiple stages then each stage has to be recorded separately. Secondly, create a cumulative flow diagram based on this data. I’ll explain how to read this diagram in one of my following articles. 
 
Calculate and write down the entire time you’ve spent after you’ve finish a task. Then try to work on a single task until it’s done. Measure the time you’ve working on this task. Compare both times. 
 
Now you proved to yourself that multitasking is doesn’t help to increase your productivity. It can even provide the opposite effect. 

 

Why we try to work on multiple things. 
 
Many people could say “Hey hold on! I can’t work on the same task non-stop! I need to send it for review” or “I’m expecting an input from some other person or team. And what am I supposed to do while I’m waking for their feedback?” Sometimes to wait is better than to start a new task and create more works in progress. Many managers won’t agree with me here. People get paid and so they must work. The question is not how long you work or how much time you spend working, it is how much value are you producing during that time! 
 
The best way to deal with this is to eliminate work-in-progress waste. Think about organizing your working process to eliminate all delays. 

 

Tip! How to organize your home office? Let’s say that your have a messy table. Don’t think about yourself as not being an organized person. It is more likely that your tools (paper, pen, binders, printers, scanners, etc) are in unreachable, wrong places. If you have to stand up and walk to a bookshelf to retrieve a binder you may need to reconsider the location of this particular binder and move it closer to your office table. If that’s impossible organize your work in a different way: by stacking the necessary paper in an easy, reachable location and add it to a binder once a month, or better yet, once a year. This will save you time and minimize waste. 
 
[1] RICHTEL, Matt (14 June 2008). “Lost in E-Mail, Tech Firms Face Self-Made Beast”The New York Times. Retrieved June 14, 2008.