Many companies are looking for qualified job candidates witht he ability to multi-task.  Of course, multi-tasking is another way of saying, “We have more things to do than time allotted, so can you keep up?”  But is multi-tasking truly effective?

Multi-tasking implies that multiple tasks are occurring at the same time.  As if it would be effective to work on this year’s budget while simultaneously designing a magazine advertisement for the marketing department.  The problem with the idea of multi-tasking is that our brain is not set up to switch tasks that way.  According to an article published in the periodical Neuron, by neuroscientists Rene Marois and Paul Dux, the brain’s prefrontal cortex is unable to process two tasks at the same time which contributes to our inability to effectively multi-task.

When describing the problem in seminars, I often use the analogy of a telephone switch.  If you were to place a call from New York to LA, as you speak in the phone, the phone converts your voice into electrical signals that travel across the phone lines until it gets to the receiver and is ultimately re-encoded so that the receiver can hear your voice.  However, your voice isn’t the only signal on the line.  Rather than wait for you to finish your conversation before allowing someone else to use the line, switches are used to send fragments of the signal over the lines at such rapid rates that any delay is virtually unnoticeable.  Digital switches can splice the signal up to 8,000 times per second.

So machines have a very rapid switchover ability.  Some computers have dual processors which literally is the essence of mult-tasking.  We humans, however, have a difficult time switching over.  Have you ever had to say to yourself, “Now, where was I?”  That’s an indication of a switchover problem.  You were interrupted by something, you attended to it and are trying to get back to your previous task.

That’s really not multi-tasking, that’s sequential tasking.  Which is fine, but we shouldn’t confuse trying to do a lot of things on a tight deadline with multi-tasking.  If anything, multi-tasking costs time rather than saves it.  Every second you waste trying to remember where you were is costing time.  While avoiding multi-tasking may not always be possible, keep in mind that it does have its costs.

John Ryan

Host of Key Conversations for Leaders Podcast, Executive Coach, Consultant, and Trainer

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