Time Management—Part 2: Overcoming the Myth of Multitasking
The second in a series of articles on time management, with this one encouraging aspiring business leaders to move beyond the role of multitasking in human performance
David Cox | August 27, 2019
Last week, I introduced the first in a series of articles concerning time management. This week, I want to address to problems associated with multitasking, suggest a better approach, and add rule #2 to our list.
Multitasking – An impromptu lesson
Almost ten years ago, while attending a luncheon, I overheard a conversation between Candace and Pam, a couple of local HR managers. I heard Candace say her responsibilities as a wife, mother, and employee, combined with volunteer work at school and church had become too much. Then, she said, “I’ve always been excellent at multitasking, but lately, it’s just not working for me.”
Pam replied, “That may be part of your problem. You know, people really can’t perform more than one task at a time. What makes you think that you can?” You could hear the emotion in Candace’s voice as she replied, “I know I can multitask because I’m a mother.” Pam thought for a moment and said, “Well, it’s hard to argue with that kind of logic.”
Multitasking – What makes us think we can do that?
Hard? I would say arguing with “that kind of logic” is impossible. Candace’s claim of her ability to multitask is not logical. I offer two reasons in support of my opinion. Reason #1: There is no evidence that people can perform two or more tasks simultaneously. Reason #2: Motherhood is not an exception to Reason #1.
According to research, the word multitasking first appeared in a 1966 issue of Datamation, a computer magazine. The original quote was: “Multi-tasking is defined as the use of a single CPU for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs.” Eventually, the definition evolved into “the concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer.”
In the early 1990s, people began to apply the term multitasking to human performance. Surprisingly, the concept grew in popularity even though there was no evidence to support it. By the mid-1990s, the Cambridge English Dictionary developed a secondary definition for multitasking. The definition now included “a person’s ability to do more than one thing at a time.” Today, the same dictionary features the application of multitasking to human performance as its primary definition.
I feel that applying the term in the above manner is problematic in at least two ways. (1) The ability of human beings to multitask is a false concept, and (2) attempting to do so is often counterproductive.
It’s a false concept
As technology becomes increasingly capable of performing numerous tasks simultaneously, the idea that individuals can multitask becomes more prevalent. Edward Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that despite the acceptance of the myth, “We cannot focus on more than one thing at a time.” Miller also said, “People can’t multitask very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” He concluded by saying, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
This delusion has never stopped the countless number of business owners, staffing agencies, and HR departments from using phrases in their job postings such as, “This job requires the ability to multitask.” When I discuss this point while presenting employee seminars, most participants claim they would never use the term in this manner.
A few participants attempt to defend multitasking as “an accepted standard in use throughout the American workforce.” That may be evidence of widespread misuse of the term, but it neither proves nor supports the plausibility of the concept.
In fairness, I’ve spoken with 2-3 seminar participants who admitted that people are incapable of multitasking, but they have a caveat. They claim the word is synonymous with task-switching. In reality, the two terms have distinctly different definitions. That’s the problem with a false concept: There’s nothing you can do to make it accurate.
It’s counterproductive when attempted
Undoubtedly, attempts to multitask can result in degrading the quality of our work. Studies and surveys show that attempts at multitasking make us increasingly susceptible to the following:
- Lack of focus
- Increased stress levels
- Frustration over our lack of accomplishments
If you can’t focus effectively, you can’t think effectively. If you can’t think effectively, you definitely can’t produce the quality of work necessary to be successful. From this perspective, it’s easy to see why focus is such an essential skill for business success. I recommend Kevin Abdulrahman’s excellent article on how to improve your focus at work in our digital age. Nonetheless, attempting to multitask is detrimental to focusing on a task and puts quality work at risk.
Multitasking – What’s the alternative?
Why base your time management on a groundless myth (multitasking). You need to concentrate on doing one task at a time, so why not create a time management philosophy around something truthful and build on it.
Consider the words of Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester (from the TV series, M*A*S*H). Once, when sarcastically asked what made him such a great surgeon. Winchester replied, “I do one thing at a time. I do it very well. Then, I move on.” Winchester may have been considered pious and arrogant, but undoubtedly, I would want a surgeon with such focus.
I encourage you to apply focus and concentration to each task. If you do, your work will represent you well. Most assuredly, you will accomplish more, with superior quality than any self-described “multitasker” you may know.
The second rule of time management
I started this series last week by discussing the importance of valuing time as a limited resource. As a result, I shared our first rule of time management:
This week, I conclude by adding a second rule to our list:
Rule #2 – Do one thing at a time. Do it very well. Then, move on to what’s next on your list.
Next week, I’ll cover the third of five rules that help me make better decisions with regards to time management. Moreover, they’ve helped me stay on track as ThirdPartyBlogger.com continues to grow and develop. As always, I can’t guarantee they’ll help you, but I can attest they’ve worked well for me.