Multi-tasking is NOT the Key to Productivity

If anyone tells you how great they are at multi-tasking, you are probably talking to someone who is not productive. If you are reading this whilst doing something else you are selling yourself short.

Here is the ‘Heads-up’ on Multi-tasking

Imagine the scene, you are on the sofa watching an Agatha Christie murder movie with your partner. In your hand is your smart phone and you are scrolling through the latest up-dates on Facebook and Twitter. Now and again you answer your partner's questions and have a chat – you are multi-tasking.

By doing multiple things at once, you get to watch a movie, spend time with your partner and get to know what is happening in your ‘cyber-world’. This is a win-win scenario and you have saved a lot of time by multi-tasking.

The truth is, you have actually been wasting time. Yes, you found out ‘who dunnit’, what your friends are up to and have interacted with your partner, but the truth is how much do you remember and what was the quality of your experience really like?

I know that multitasking is something everyone does these days. Our world, the way we work and communicate makes it hard not to multitask. You might even think that you good at multitasking – most of us do.

Sure, there are lots of things we can multi-task like chewing gum whilst making a bed or chopping an onion. The problem is that these tasks do not need ‘brain-power’ – they are simply, repetitive tasks. In contrast, when we need to take in and simultaneously process important information, humans simply do not have sufficient brain power.

The human brain is not good at processing two streams of data at once and can only retain between 5 - 9 things in its short term memory store. It is therefore almost impossible to recall multiple pieces of information when we multi-task and the chances are the information will not have been retained in the brain’s long term memory store.

There is No Such as Thing as Multi-tasking

The term ‘multi-tasking’ initially emerged in the tech industry, to describe a computer's single central processing unit performing multiple tasks. In reality, a computer processor can only perform one function at a time. The reason it appears to be multitasking is that it is able to switch from one task to another very fast - it is not executing whole tasks in parallel, but executing parts of tasks before switching to another very fast, thereby giving the illusion of multi-tasking.

Although many times more powerful than the most advanced computer processors, the human brain does not have the capacity to fully and freely multi-task processes requiring brain power. Effective multi-tasking is out of the reach of the human brain.

Single Tasking is the Key to Productivity

It might not be good news, but the best way to improve productivity is to focus on one task at a time. The ability to give 100 per cent focus on a task is the best way to complete it. One of the problems today is that we have bought into the myth of multi-tasking.

Try this experiment. The next time a colleague is speaking to you, carry on working on your computer by typing in this paragraph:

“I am typing this text at the same time as I am listening to my colleague. The words in this paragraph are not complicated nor sophisticated, therefore I expect that I will be 100% perfect with words spelled accurately. The word spacing will be perfect with no errors or additional spaces. After I have typed this, I will tell my colleague almost word for word what they have just told me without missing out any details or information. I will type continuously whilst they are speaking”.

Good luck with this task. Even if you can recall everything they said to you and you have no typos, I guarantee you that they will not feel as though you have actively listened to them. Effective communication involves giving 100% focus and concentration – unless you are a computer process, you will have failed!

My Advice: Less is More

If you want to improve your performance, chunk up your day into smaller segments and focus on one thing at a time. Open your emails and respond to them then close the programme. If you leave it open, it will grab your focus from what you are doing. Every time you switch attention, you are losing performance – you are not multi-tasking, you are serial processing. Fifteen uninterrupted minutes focussed on one task will always outperform 30 minutes jumping from task to task.

If you are not convinced try it and experience the difference. Let me know how you get on!

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About the Author

John Moore has over 20 years experience of training and developing Managers, Coaches, Consultants and businesses. As Managing Director of Exponential Training, John researches, speaks, blogs and writes about how to improve performance. He also designs and delivers engaging, fun and interactive learning programmes. John is a Fellow Chartered Manager and has worked with managers and organisations in over 20 different countries.

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