Though around the world, the ability to multitask is touted as a proof of superior work ethic, more than three decades of academic research has overwhelmingly demonstrated that multitasking substantially decreases the productivity of individuals. Studies show that switching between tasks can cause a loss of productivity as high as 40 percent when compared to single-tasking, and workers who multitask are much less likely to engage in creative thinking than those whose work is not fragmented. The simple exercise below brings home this point.
Get a stopwatch, or any watch with a second hand, and time how long it takes you (or your boss) to write "multitask 123456789". Next, time how many seconds it takes to write the same thing, but this time with the numbers interspersed between the letters: "m1u2l3t4i5t6a7s8k9". You will probably see a dramatic difference in the time it took to write the version that requires switching back and forth from letters to numbers. It seems counter-intuitive, but if you focus on one task at a time you will always finish faster and with fewer errors than when you work on both tasks.
Unfortunately, even those who know that multitasking kills productivity find themselves doing it anyway. In today’s fast-paced world, engineers often have more tasks assigned to them than they can complete, which drives them to multitask. Even so, there are steps individuals can take to reduce multitasking:
1) Prioritize all assigned tasks in a list;
2) Work on the highest priority task first, all the way to completion, before starting the next highest priority; and
3) Every so often, reorder and add to the list to reflect changing priorities.
These three steps will go a long way toward reducing task-switching and multitasking. Engineers can also discipline themselves to avoid distractions such as email by scheduling certain times during the day when they do email and only email, instead of living in their inbox throughout the day.
Individual multitasking is just the tip of the iceberg, however. In my next blog post in this series, I will discuss organizational multitasking, which creates much larger problems for engineering teams.