We’re all guilty of it. You’re probably doing it right now—skimming your email and stopping to answer an employee’s question—as you attempt to read this post.
MULTITASKING—the great myth of the 21st century.
We’ve been convinced being able to do multiple tasks at once not only saves us time, but is a skill we should cultivate. In reality, multitasking is one of the main reasons why we feel overwhelmed, stressed, and unproductive.
To get to the bottom of this multitasking myth, and how small business owners can avoid the temptation, we chatted with acclaimed author and speaker, Dave Crenshaw. Dave is the master of helping business owners triumph over chaos. His first book, The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done, has been published in six languages and is a time management best seller. His latest book, The Focused Business: How Entrepreneurs Can Triumph Over Chaos, is also a small business best seller. Through his books, presentations, and one-on-one coaching, Dave has transformed thousands of businesses worldwide.
Where did your interest in multitasking come from?
My career began working with and coaching small business owners to be successful. I was originally working on another book, but realized I had so much material about the myth of multitasking from my experiences from working with business owners. As a group, entrepreneurs and business owners are horrible at multitasking and lose so much time as a result.
Why is multitasking a waste of time?
Simply put, it’s a waste of time because it doesn’t exist. When we think we’re doing multiple things at the same time, we’re really switchtasking. Switchtasking is the act of switching from one attention-requiring task to another. For instance, if I were to try to have this interview at the same time I’m answering emails, or attend a conference call while I’m doing paperwork, I’d be switchtasking. The brain is not able to handle multiple active tasks at the same time, so all it’s really doing is switching rapidly back and forth, and we’re losing lots and lots of time due to that switching cost.
Which groups of people suffer the most from multitasking?
Business owners are at the top because they wear so many hats in terms of positions they fill in their business. Women in particular are affected because, as a group, they feel social pressure to have it all and do it all. Also, women are often told they’re better at multitasking—which is a false statement. Lastly, I’d say people in sales often suffer from this myth, as the sales personality lends itself to switching attention a lot.
Are professions focused on billable hours, like attorneys, more or less susceptible to multitasking?
I don’t see them necessarily being more or less susceptible to multitasking than any other group, no. However, I do see billable-hour professionals putting too much emphasis on just billable time. A principle I discuss in my time management fundamentals course on Lynda.com is determining your most valuable position and what that activity is worth per hour. Professionals who bill their time often only think the time spent billable is valuable, when in fact the time that’s spent being a business owner, being strategic and visionary, is worth far more than what they’re billing per hour.
How much time and money is going down the drain as a result of multitasking?
Basex research estimates the cost of interruptions and associated recovery time to the U.S. economy at approximately $1 trillion. That’s a big number and extrapolated a bit, so I like to bring it closer to home…your personal cost.
If you have employees, one-quarter of your payroll is wasted time; you’re essentially paying your employees one week out of every month to do nothing. And that’s not them wasting time watching videos on YouTube; it’s time lost in the seams due to the switches and interruptions taking place in their day.
On a personal level, if you took the amount of money you’re worth per hour, multiplied that by the number of hours you work per week, then multiply that number by 28 percent, you’ll get the actual lost value due to switching tasks. For most business owners, it’s in the neighborhood of $1,000-$2,000 of lost potential every single week due to multitasking—which is why getting control of time is the first place I start when I work with my business coaching clients.
Do you think technology is adding to the problem or providing a solution?
Technology is neither the problem, nor the solution—it’s our use of technology that’s the problem. The basic example I use is receiving email notifications on your phone. If you’re being notified every single time an email comes in, you’re creating dozens, if not hundreds, of switches in your day. Turning off those notifications and having a set time to check emails will radically reduce the number of switches your brain must make. Getting a new app doesn’t solve this problem; it starts with the decision a person makes to not be constantly interrupted, checking email rather than email checking them.
Does multitasking ever work?
As I mentioned previously, switchtasking is attempting to perform multiple activities that require attention at the same time. It’s usually what people mean when they say they’re “multitasking.” Background tasking is where something mindless, mundane or automatic is occurring in the background. A basic example would be starting the printer on a huge print job while I answer email. Another example would be delegating tasks to another employee while I work on my most valuable activity. Unlike multitasking, background tasking can be extremely effective and efficient.
How can you create a more focused culture within your company?
I talk a lot about the importance of moving from a culture of now to a culture of when. In a culture of now, an employee with a question will walk in and interrupt you right at that moment. If you don’t respond right then, they’ll send you a text message and an email and the cycle repeats forever. Instead, we want to switch a culture of when—I am going to respond to every question and email and so on, and this is when I’m going to do it. For example, having a set time in your schedule to respond to the quick questions of employees and encouraging them to hold those questions until the scheduled time. Setting those expectations greatly reduces the number of interruptions that take place during the day.
What are some of your other tips for overcoming the temptation to multitask, particularly for small business owners?
I recommend business owners have a “gatekeeper”—someone that stands between you and all of the interruptions coming at you throughout the day. This is where a service like Ruby is useful—they field the calls and determine the priority of what you pay attention to, based upon instructions you’ve previously provided them. Consider the number of solicitation calls you receive; there’s a switching cost associated with each of those calls. Perhaps the cost is 5 minutes per interruption. If you’re getting interrupted 10 times per day, we’re talking almost an hour every single day lost by not having a gatekeeper. Having something like Ruby will dramatically reduce the number of switches that take place in your day.
The reality is it doesn’t matter whether you’re a man or a woman, 16 or 60, or where you’re born in the world—we all pay switching costs. When you attempt switchtasking (a.k.a. multitasking):
- Things take longer
- You make more mistakes
- You increase your stress levels
Does multitasking hurt us in ways other than productivity?
Yes, there’s also a fourth effect of switchtasking. When you switchtask on a human being, you’re communicating to them they’re less important than anything else you could be doing. None of us would pick up the phone and say, “Thanks for calling XYZ company, where you’re unimportant. How can I help you?” Yet, when we switchtask on people, friends, and customers, that’s exactly what we’re saying—and that damages relationships.
The good news is that if we don’t switchtask, we stand apart in a world addicted to the myth by communicating to others they are important and we do care about them. That has huge benefit not just to the business and your customers, but also to your personal life. It is far more effective to focus on one task at a time then it is to try to switch tasks and pay that switching cost.
Ready to kick your multitasking habit? You’re in luck! Now through February 14, receive 30 days free access to Lynda.com and Dave’s entire course library—including his Time Management Fundamentals course. Simply visit davecrenshaw.com/freetime to learn more!