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Take Back the Time: Alternatives to Multitasking

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By Kathy Marshall, Director of Recruitment Quality and Client Engagement
With Tom Brennan, Master Writer


It would be hard to find a job posting that doesn’t list “the ability to multitask” among the requirements. We live in a busy and demanding world and most of us believe that, without multitasking, we never would get it all done. However, that may not be true.

Studies (such as those by Hamilton or Rubenstein) suggest that multitasking involving complex activities is not efficient. For example, if you try to write a report and surf the web at the same time, you’ll lose time as you shift mental gears to switch back and forth.

At Decision Toolbox, I started noticing that conference calls were increasingly unproductive . . . and I could hear keyboarding in the background. It was true: most participants were multitasking during the calls. It took a little effort, but today those calls are both shorter AND more productive. Here’s how we changed it.

The first step was to convince everyone that multitasking is not all it’s cracked up to be. We did two exercises together. In the first one, I asked the team to write A through Z and then 1 through 26 as fast as they could, while timing themselves. Then they tried writing the same thing while switching back and forth between letters and numbers, such as A, 1, B, 2, C, 3 . . . You can try it yourself. Just switching from alphabetical to numerical sequence slowed everyone down.

The next exercise was a little more challenging, but pretty fun. Participants had to do three things at once: count how many times a critter was mentioned as someone read aloud from a Dr. Seuss story, count how many times someone rang a bell, and solve relatively basic math problems shown briefly on a screen.

No one scored higher than 70%, and many people missed the bells or the math problems altogether. At least one person put her pencil down before the exercise ended, surrendering before her brain overheated. As we debriefed afterwards, we realized that 70% efficiency was probably artificially high — in a test scenario people were hyper-focused.

Most of us don’t give that much focus in their multitasking on a day-to-day basis. That suggests that most of us are LESS than 70% efficient and effective as we multitask. If you were applying a method like Six Sigma, that kind of inefficiency would be unacceptable and would likely lead to critical errors. The team vowed, from that point on, to be “in it every minute.” Here are some tactics for doing the same.

Block off a couple of distraction-free hours if you have a longer project that requires concentration, such as writing a report or creating a PowerPoint. Close your email program, route phone calls to voice message and set your instant message (IM) system to “do not disturb.” An interruption may take you away from the main project for only 5 minutes, but it may take 10 or 15 minutes to re-orient and really get back “into the zone” of focus. Think about the times you’ve worked over the weekend and powered through a project without all the distractions.

Get buy-in on total focus during conference calls. Not only will you get more accomplished, but the dialog will be better — better ideas propelling off one another and much better quality. Meetings that used to take us 2 hours are now down to 45 minutes. That means more white space on your calendar — if you’re like me, that’s more like GOLD space.

Be smart with technology, such as taking advantage of shared calendars to book time with a co-worker. There’s no need to send an email asking if they are available. Skip that step — they can always decline the invitation. If you’re on the same conference call and need to IM relevant and important information to someone on the call, wait until they are finished talking. We’ve all faltered mid-sentence because we’ve tried to talk and read an IM at the same time.

It takes a degree of discipline to change your habits. You have to live by the new approach. But once you accept that multitasking emphasizes quantity to the detriment of quality and productivity, you can start to take back the time you used to lose.



Hamilton, R., et al. (2011) Being of two minds: Switching mindsets exhausts self-regulatory resources. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes (Vol. 115, No. 1).


Rubinstein, et. al. (2001). Executive control of cognitive process in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (Vol. 27, No. 4).

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One Response to “Take Back the Time: Alternatives to Multitasking”

  1. November 05, 2016 at 12:05 pm, Christiana said:

    If time is money you’ve made me a weatihler woman.


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