Is multitasking dangerous or a myth ?

Multitasking is a big issue for both people and organization. It’s the (presumed and made essential) ability for someone to do many things at the same time. The social media phenomenon and the increasing number of information flows people are exposed to are making this concern more and more central.

I’m afraid that, behing th multitasking question, hides a fundamental and dangerous erreur that may make us lose sight of what matters.

Human beings are not fully multitask. We can fully do ony one thing at the same time and it will last for years even if I can admit that in a few centurys our skills will surely imprve. Even Digital Natives are not more multitask than others.

Being multitask and being able to switch from one thing to another are often mistaken. New generations (but many other too) can quickly shuttle between two tasks, what is sometimes seen as being multitask. These people are able to transfer attention and energer between two things, what does not mean they adress them jointly.

But we also have to assume that, when attention is continuously transfered from one point to another, it loses intensity and the more multitask people are the more errors can be found in the tasks they achieve. If you need to be convinced, please read this note .

Some may find it disappointing since  because they used to see in multitasking the response to many concerns about productivity. But it’s not that bad : the impacts of multitasking would not all be positive. I already mentioned the risk of an higher failure rate. But there’s also another point : the impossibility to respect due dates. Imagine three tasks, A, B and C, whose duration is 10 (minutes, hour, days… ).

If they are carried out in a raw, the first will be achieved at H+10, the second at H+20, the third at H+30. Now imagine they are carried out in a fragmentary way, on a 5 minutes slot base. The result will look like that :

I didn’t even take into account the time needed to re-focus on each task. Maybe it can make it possible to finish a task earlier but, on a global scale, it doesn’t help people to save any time.

People are overwhelmed by signals and information that force them to try to multitask. At the end, it only lowers their productivity although communication tools are supposed to help them improve it. That is not becaue a message is received that it’s treated, and everyone has his own prioriies. But, obviously, those who send messages and those who conceive the tools that carry them, seem not to be paying any attention to that.

Being exposed to a lot of flows that condition their work, employees need to take leadership upon tools and to maser channels instead of being under a waterfall. By the way I like the analogy that consists of saying that a multi jet shower is something pleasant while being under a waterfall hurts.

The response to this issue has two sides

• The first is behavioral : employees have to learn how to turn flows off and achieve a task without being interrupted.

• The second is rather technical: tools employees are provided with must allow them to master flows and not to be their victims anymore. They must be able to priorize some, put some on hold, reroute some others and make things in order to ” if information is relevant it will find me…if not it will wait”. In brief, tools will have to make it possible for people to build their own information supply chain, whose timing, rate and content will be under their control, starting from a information marketplace, a kind of marshalling yard. A major issue for the software industry where social software will have to play its part.

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Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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