Think back over the past week: What is the typical stretch of uninterrupted time you had to focus on a single task or piece of important work? The answer for most executives is about an hour.
Let’s delve a little deeper by asking: “So you get an hour each day (without instant messages, phone calls, social media, or email interruptions) to focus on important tasks from your to-do list?” Following this question people will generally cut in half their estimate of an uninterrupted hour.
The modern term for working with continual interruptions is multi-tasking. It sounds neat and efficient – something we all do with effortless ease. But is this really the case?
For most of us the next interruption is only minutes away! But, what is the effect of continual interruptions on our performance?
Multi-tasking is as much a part of the way we work, as email or Zoom meetings. As such, we give it little thought. Yet it may be one of the greatest sources of performance loss or gain that we face.
Multi-tasking is the principal mode of everyday working. With a continuous stream of emails, IMs and meetings, we don’t get to focus on any one task for long before being interrupted. However, just because we multi-task all the time doesn’t mean it is easy or effective.
Most executives believe that they can efficiently, even effortlessly, juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. However, there is mounting scientific evidence that this is simply not true. Far from being effortless, the demands of multi-tasking in terms of our energy and attention are significantly greater than we could have imagined.
The problem is that multi-tasking is a misnomer. We are not simultaneously working on multiple tasks but rather switching between them1.
We are endlessly switching between tasks – for example every phone call, IM, email or other interruption distracts us from what we are doing and diverts our attention. A ping on your PC or a flicker of your phone screen alerts you to a new message and instantly your attention is switched from the task at hand.
Our brains are designed to focus on one thing at a time, so we face a physical hardware limitation when it comes to multi-tasking. Far from being effortless, this switching has a cost. It is both energy and attention intensive.
It is fashionable to talk of ‘multi-tasking’, but the word ‘juggling’ better communicates the complexity of what is happening. Also, the potential downsides – the risk of ‘dropping the ball’ and having ‘too many balls in the air’.
When the work is routine or second nature, interruptions or multi-tasking are not a challenge. However, when the work is complex and demanding – when our full attention is required – the quality and accuracy of our work can suffer.
As Jeff Sutherland puts it: ‘We want to be that guy—the Super-Juggler. We tell ourselves we can. Unfortunately, we can’t’2.
When you are under pressure and your bandwidth is already limited, constant interruptions can detract from the quality of your decisions, your interactions with your colleagues and even your wellbeing.
If the work you do is complex and demanding, unbridled multi-tasking could be one of the most significant performance losses you face3. It is not just about productivity or performance, but pressure and vitality too. So, if you find yourself drained at the end of the workday run-away multi-tasking could be the culprit.
Continuous switching has the potential to significantly deplete energy and degrade performance. The problem is that it does this in a stealthy manner. We switch between projects or tasks in an apparently effortless manner – unaware of the burden it represents.
We use the words ‘always on’ to describe our lives and our work. But a more accurate description might be a state of ‘Continuous Partial Attention’. That is what Linda Stone calls the pattern of ongoing interruption and switching4.
It is called partial attention because runaway multi-tasking could mean a loss of 10 IQ points on average ( 5 IQ points for women and 15 for men)5. This is based on a small study, but it is probably the type of headline that is required to alert people to the cost of multi-tasking.
In our work we are paid to think – to apply our full intelligence, learning and problem-solving skills. But our ability to do this can be hampered by runaway multi-tasking. This is particularly true for complex problems that require a sustained focus over a period of time. It is our most complex and important business decisions that are likely to suffer.
The dumbing-down as a result of run-away multi-tasking (i.e reduction in IQ as mentioned above) could be as serious as the impact of losing a night’s sleep or your brain on cannabis. Now imagine, if a colleague is sleeping at their desk or taking cannabis at work, HR would soon be involved. However, when people are similarly hampered in their performance by multi-tasking nobody pays any attention!
As David Rock warns ‘your ability to make great decisions is a limited resource. Conserve this resource at every opportunity’6.
Our limited understanding of the impact of constant interruptions is a blindspot when it comes to performance, as well as to pressure and vitality.
There is an assumption of unlimited bandwidth – that our attention is infinitely elastic – that it can stretch endlessly regardless of the number of projects we are working on, the length of our task list, the number of interruptions and so on.
However, the cost of run-away multi-tasking can be measured in many ways:
Of course, multi-tasking is not all bad.
You cannot avoid multi-tasking. It is essential to getting your work done. You cannot, for example, leave our email or IM unattended for long periods – the expectation is that we will be ‘always on’.
Moreover, as we return to the office the issue of run-away multi-tasking becomes even more important and the number of interruptions may well increase. Hence, the importance of knowing the effects and how they will be managed.
What is the solution? Well with any problem involving human behaviour it starts with awareness of the problem. It starts by asking what impact multi-tasking is having on you and then exploring the strategies available to manage unwarranted and unplanned interruptions.