On being appropriate: Multitasking is wrong

One of the big lies in modern management is that multitasking is

(a) good
(b) preferable to linear action, and
(c) possible.

Time management tools, whether paper based or electronic, promise to make sense of an increasingly confusing and complex world. But they’re based on one basic, and mistaken premise – which is that it is actually possible to do hundreds of things at the same time at the same level of effectiveness.

This is so fundamental a misconception I am astonished it is still held. There’s a simple exercise, taught amongst others to people on the expert patients’ programme in the UK, which proves the point. People who have, for instance, panic attacks, are taught exercises that stop them thinking about their situation and which instead immerses them in thinking on something else – like thinking of an animal for every letter of the alphabet, for instance.

And what happens? The panic attack subsides; the fear somehow dissipates – simply because the mind cannot focus on more than a very few things at once.

If it is this simple to stop thinking about something as fundamental as a panic attack, how easy is it to stop thinking about work; to lose focus switching from one task to another; to forget, in the melee of daily business the one thing that actually matters.

Refusing to multitask, though, quickly gets you an image as some kind of workplace wimp. What’s the solution? Personal effectiveness experts like Steven Covey or Brian Tracey have good ideas on prioritisation, and some useful ways of thinking about work organisation, but still perpetuate the idea that multitasking is actually achievable. David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” methodology works better, acknowledging that organising tasks is only the first stage in finding ways of keeping tabs on everything that is going on.

But the challenge is still there – that these are solutions to a problem we have imposed upon ourselves. What we need to do instead is realise that giving uninterrupted time to a particular project promotes concentrated, effective work – and find ways of promoting that uninterrupted time within the workplace.

At Vivid London, where we work open plan, finding ways of limiting the interruptions that break concentration was one of our first foci. We solved it with something simple, and effective – we each have a flag (in a multi-national, multi-cultural office, there are more than enough flags to go round). When the flag is up, no interruptions are permitted. When the flag is down, the person is fair game. And suddenly, there is time in which to think.

This wouldn’t work without personal organisation – and personal organisation which is shared. We know what we have to do. We share that with our colleagues by having our task lists on a board which we all can see.

Sure, there are times when you have to multitask – when there’s a phone call, an email, and a colleague, all in the same space at the same time. But recognising that better work comes from better concentration, that the pressure to multitask is an artificial one and un-necessary; and by setting a policy in place that provides space, we believe we are giving people the time and space they need to do excellent, focussed work.

Jonathan Blanchard Smith
A strategic marketer with a range and depth of international experience, Jonathan is Managing Partner at Vivid London. He coaches at executive level and lectures on cultural integration with specific reference to cross-border mergers and acquisitions. Past chairman of a national patient advocacy charity, he also chairs the board of a technology company and a number of committees.


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