The ability to, and the act of, multitasking is sometimes seen as a good thing. However, it can be clearly demonstrated that multitasking is an inefficient process that can contribute to waste in any business.
First time reader note: Tools are self contained components of business wisdom applicable throughout your business.
Multitasking is the act of doing several different tasks more or less at once.
It's very common in business for an individual or an organisation to be trying to work on a number of projects at once. This is sometimes thought of as a good thing to demonstrate that people are able to keep abreast of a lot of work. However, it’s easily shown that it is in fact quite a wasteful approach and should be frowned upon.
This Tool discusses issues around multitasking, how to recognise it and how to overcome its deficiencies.
We will use the term projects below to represent discrete bundles of work. However, this could easily be individual products being assembled in a manufacturing line like construction operations
The Impact of Multitasking
As a simple illustration of the impact of multitasking, consider the example of 4 projects (ABCD) each taking 4 months to complete when done individually.
If we multitask them by doing a month of each of them in turn as might be the case if we wanted them all to progress, we have;
ABCD ABCD ABCD ABCD
Project A will be completed in month 13 under this scenario and all 4 are finished by month 16
If we do one project at a time through to completion, we have;
AAAA BBBB CCCC DDDD
So Project A is finished in month 4 and again all 4 are finished by month 16.
In fact, the multitasking approach will probably take longer because each switch from one project to another will probably be accompanied by wasted time for setup, swapping a project in and out and general human procrastination.
If we add in switching effects as “x”, multitasked projects look like;
AxBxCxDx AxBxCxDx AxBxCxDx AxBxCxD
There are 15 switch over periods in this scenario.
But, if we complete one project before doing another thus doing away with the multitasking, the picture is;
AAAAx BBBBx CCCCx DDDD
So there are only 3 switch over periods; a saving of 12 periods of wasted effort.
There are several types of multitasking;
- Classic multitasking: doing more than one thing at a time
- Rapid task switching: quickly moving from one task to another
- Interrupted task switching: Switching from one job to another, before the first one is complete and thereby leaving it dangling uncompleted
As well as delay at a longer term project level, university research has indicated multitasking in the course of a day causes quite a lot of disruption to your day.
According to neuroscientists, the human brain isn’t designed for multitasking, and it kills mental performance, creativity and decision-making.
For example, a study conducted in the University of California, discovered that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus on a task after an interruption.
Costs of Multitasking
The longer period of time taken to complete multi-tasked projects can have a considerable financial impact.
Presumably a project is undertaken in order to provide an outcome that can be turned into income. If we multitask in the scenario above, the first project would become available 13 months after the start. Alternatively if we did just project A to it's completion, it would become available after 4 months. In the difference between 13 months and 4 months which is 9 months, we could be selling the income generated by Project A. In other words, cashflow begins 9 months earlier in a non multi task project than it would in a multitasked one. If you multiply this effect by the number of projects the business might have going at any point in time, the economic impact might be considerable.
Inc. magazine reports that the estimated cost of lost productivity due to multitasking is $450 billion, and the costs to the individual are also quite significant, including:
- an average of just 1 minute and 15 seconds on a task before being interrupted.
- an average of 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted.
- Heavily multitasking can temporarily lower your IQ by up to 15 points.
Rather than multitasking being something to be admired, it is almost certainly going to contribute to extensive project delay and loss of income that might otherwise come if the projects are completed in a more timely fashion.
The typical signs of a multitasking environment that you would see in an assembly line that wasn't operating very well include:
Missed deadlines: because people are juggling a number of activities, they will have extensive delays built into the work that they are carrying out as we have seen in the first example above. So if you find that your business is not meeting its deadlines, it's worth doing a diagnostic to see if you are working in a multitasking environment.
Inventory pile up: in the same way that inventory would pile up in front of a constraint in a factory (see the Theory of Constraints menu) , work will pile up on in front of individuals or parts of your organisation that are multitasking because they're not pulling all of the work for one particular task through the task before commencing the next one.
Multitasking is a difficult thing to avoid; it's almost part of Human Nature to multitask even though it is an inefficient process. Typical reasons for multitasking creeping into a system include the following;
Competing demands for a limited resource. Where you have an individual who is essential to several parts of your process, they are likely to have a lot of work piled up in front of them from the various projects in play at the time. If the bosses see this happening, and all of the projects slowing down as a consequence, they will be very tempted to have this human resource do a little bit work on every project in turn so as to be seen to be progressing all of them. It becomes even worse when an individual may have several different bosses (e.g. Matrix management) who each makes demands on their time and each of them has projects desperate to be completed. The end result is that the staff member involved does a little bit of everything in order to try and keep everyone happy. But the consequent delays in completing the projects makes nobody happy. The same is true if a piece of machinery or other resource has multiple different demands on it. With machinery, it can be particularly wasteful given that there may well be a change over time from the machine carrying out one process to carrying out another process. The switch over time, as we saw above, can add considerable amounts of waste of time to the process being undertaken
It's human nature to want to do the jobs that an individual finds interesting before doing the ones they find less interesting. Very often people will do as much as they can of the interesting jobs and as little as they can of the less interesting jobs. This introduces multitasking between interesting and uninteresting jobs and the extra delay in building up their preparedness to do the uninteresting jobs introduces switching costs as a further delay.
Juggling deadlines: when a number of projects are simultaneously being delayed, it's very tempting to do a little bit of each of them in order to try to move them all along towards the completion date. As we have seen in the example above, of this sort of switching from one project to another is less efficient than completing the projects one at a time
Power struggles: very often when several different people have projects competing for resources, there will be some form of power struggle between them to get access to the resources that they need to complete their individual projects. If the biggest boss always has their own way, the projects belonging to the less influential bosses will naturally be delayed. This swapping in and out of projects on the basis of the seniority of a boss contributes significantly to multitasking and its consequent delay in completion of the project.
Using the wrong project management techniques: See Project management Recipe
Managing For Multitasking
How you manage to avoid multitasking probably depends on the complexity of the projects that you undertake and the frequency you have new projects. Since this will likely vary, there is no standard template for how you carry out a project.
For some professions like e.g. software programming, there are quite sophisticated techniques that have been developed to keep software developers focused on efficiently producing software products in a timely fashion and with few quality problems. If you want to read more about this, read up about techniques like Agile, Scrum and Kanban.
For some businesses that undertake multiple projects at any one point in time that share the use of various resources, software planning tools like the Critical Path Method (CPM) can help to manage the flow of work. Given that resource constraints may be more of a problem in a project planning process than time management, a technique like Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) would be more appropriate in many cases (see the Critical Chain Project Management article)
However, many small businesses don't require this level of sophistication.
As a manager, your job is to control the flow of work to the people carrying it out. The best way to achieve this is to feed them one task at a time in whatever you consider to be the priority order and have them complete that task before you feed them the next one. This is sometimes referred to as ‘gating’ in tasks (one goes through the gate at a time). There are some simple software tools available to manage this process if your business needs this sort of workflow management. One group is collectively known as Kanban software (see Kanban article) and one of the easiest, free and most widely used Is named Trello.
Profit Savvy Resources
Further links from the Staffing Your Business Menu
Links to other resources for more learning.
The Truth About Multitasking - Time Management Tip: Michael Neuendorff
Michael explains why he recommends the complete opposite of multitasking (Video link: 3 mins)
Bulletin boards of common interest group