The Multitasking Myth

As a parent of an ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) child, I have had the unplanned but eye-opening experience of learning how to deal with ADD.  Why eye-opening?  I have to admit, I have always been skeptical of the validity of some of today’s conditions that become accepted by the medical community at large.  The sheer rate of new conditions grows each year.  When my child was first diagnosed, I wondered if ADD was truly a legitimate issue or if it was created by pharmaceutical companies who conveniently happened to have a medication to manage the condition.  It also seemed to me like a convenient excuse for those who were lazy, unmotivated, or simply capable of handling the daily demands of the modern world.  I have since learned that I was completely wrong.struggling

After experiencing the effects of ADD has on my child and consequently putting together a plan to manage it, I have seen a 180 degree turn in my child’s ability to deal with the anxiety that accompanies ADD.  My child has gone from a very challenged student to a peak performer at school almost immediately.  Also, my child’s satisfaction level with achievements and self-confidence is at an all-time high.

There are three things we implemented which have directly contributed to the successful turn-around:

  1. A sustainable and recognizable daily routine
  2. Prioritizing what is most important, communicating it to our child, and focusing on that list one item at a time
  3. Constantly re-evaluate #2 and adjusting  accordingly

Since being introduced to ADD I have become familiar with the effects it has on performance, self-satisfaction, and self-confidence.   I have also noticed similarities between these effects and the effects of multitasking on performance, self-satisfaction, and self-confidence in the workplace.  Over the years, I have even seen a number of cases of what one could term as “artificially-manufactured ADD”.

Why make this comparison?  Because many in the business community treat multitasking in the same way I first treated ADD; the effects on productivity are really over-hyped and those who can’t multitask effectively are just lazy, unmotivated, or incapable of handling the tasks of today’s business climate. 

Multitasking is not a modern concept; in fact it is believed to have been around for a long time.  Today’s work environments drive multitasking demands on our time almost by default.  CNN describes multitasking as “a post-layoff corporate assumption that the few can be made to do the work of many”.  I’m not sure if I completely agree with this viewpoint, but some studies show that multitasking is a less efficient approach to work than focusing on similar types of tasks at the same time, or focusing on one specific deliverable at a time.   There are many suggestions as to how to address and minimize the effects of multitasking or how to operate to avoid it.  In my experience, the best way to minimize performance loss of multitasking is similar to the approach we have taken to counteract the effects of ADD with my child:

  1. Be consistent and predictable wherever possible
  2. Prioritize your work and single-thread your efforts whenever possible
  3. Constantly re-evaluate #2 for updated priorities and adjust when needed

Highly productive teams groom, prioritize, re-groom, and re-prioritize their work constantly.  They also are consistently inquiring about priority and adjusting accordingly.  Most importantly, they work to keep their efforts as single-threaded (one item at a time) as possible to maximize their productivity.   The effect on your group’s performance, as well as your group’s output quality and agility, will be greater than you think.

Want to learn more ways to create high-performing teams? Check out another post by Mike Jebber – Team Building: Diversity Uncovers What Experience Can’t.