Busting the Multitasking Myth, Once and for All

The other day I was on a call with a client, a senior executive of a smallish life sciences company. I asked a question and heard dead silence on the other end of the line. After a few uncomfortable seconds, I asked, “Are you still there?”

“Um … yeah,” he said, “just distracted by a text message.” The call lasted another half hour or so but it took him a while to regain his focus. Which begs the question, was the interruption a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is a lot more nuanced than popular wisdom on the subject of multitasking would have you believe.

That text may very well have been a priority interrupt. That’s geek speak for briefly suspending a low priority task, performing a higher priority function, then resuming the original task. That’s a key aspect of multitasking that enables computers and people to operate more efficiently … if you do it right.

The question is, was that text indeed a priority request or his wife asking him to stop off and pick up some milk on the way home? And if it was the former, did he actually respond, enabling someone to get something critical done without having to wait until the end of our call? If so, it was indeed beneficial. Otherwise, not so much.

Everyone from executives and project managers to nurses and cooks depend on multitasking to do their jobs more effectively.

An obvious example is a doctor interrupting an examination to immediately respond to a patient experiencing a seizure. Likewise, engineering managers are always interrupting low priority tasks to help multiple critical project teams to proceed on schedule. And it would take a chef forever to prepare an entire meal cooking one component at a time.

There are also plenty of examples of multitasking at home and on the go, as well. You certainly wouldn’t go right on washing the dishes if you suddenly smelled something unpleasant coming from the baby, would you? God, I hope not. And every driver must by definition multitask to simultaneously drive and navigate a vehicle.

So if multitasking is a good thing, then why are so many people confused about it? How has is it become common wisdom to think it’s bad for your work efficiency, your career and even your health?

The problem is sensational articles with titles like Multitasking Can Damage Your Brain and Career, Studies Say and Why You Should Stop Multitasking and Start Singletasking. Their writers either don’t know the difference between complex multitasking and trivial distraction or they’re conflating the two to generate clicks and ad dollars.

Let me clear up the confusion once and for all. Yes, you will always perform a single task better if you give it your complete and undivided attention. This is not a news flash.

A chef can julienne veggies with greater accuracy and less chance of bloodletting if he’s not simultaneously searing a couple of steaks and sautéing mushrooms. I’m surprised that anybody has to conduct research to figure that out. In the computer world, we say there’s an overhead penalty for multitasking. The same is true of humans.

But that’s an extremely narrow view of a single task. Whether you’re a computer or a person, work and life are more complex than a single trivial task. When you look at a more complex system, say having to cook an entire meal or design a semiconductor chip, if you do it right, the penalty from multitasking is miniscule compared with the benefit.

If you understand certain principles, your overall performance will always be far better when you multitask:

1. Multitasking and distraction are not the same thing. Multitasking is interleaving multiple simple tasks to achieve a more complex function more effectively and efficiently. Distraction is tweeting or texting when you should be paying attention to what you’re doing. They are very, very different. Don’t conflate the two.

2. Priority interrupts are good, dumb interrupts are bad. If my client interrupted our call so he could address a customer request that required an immediate response, that was a good interrupt. If it was about picking up milk on his way home, that was not. There are lots of tools and settings to distinguish between the two. Use them. 

3. Never sacrifice health and safety. There are times when multitasking makes you safer and times when it doesn’t. If you’re driving and navigating, you should avoid an accident even if it means missing your exit. That’s an acceptable penalty for multitasking. If you’re a cook, a nick or burn comes with the territory; chopping off a finger does not. Chefs are much better at their jobs with all their digits.

The big lesson here is to always look at the big picture. If your goal is to optimize a single trivial task – as all the clueless researchers and mindless content generators would have you do – be my guest. But you’ll never get anywhere in life. If, on the other hand, your goal is to have a successful career and a better life, multitask to your heart’s content.