Can you multitask? Should you multitask?

Conventional wisdom is that women are better at multi-tasking than men.

To be honest I don’t know.

My own take on things is that we’ve only one brain, whether we’re male or female, so it’s impossible to do more than one thing at a time with conscious intent.

So we can chat while driving. But we need to have reached the point of unconscious competence (with driving) in order to do that chatting.

In the workplace there’s widespread recognition of the cost of multitasking – how there’s a productivity loss as you attempt to ramp up on the task you switch to.

However what about the task you’re leaving if it’s incomplete?

In that case, you might spend time taking some sort of snapshot of the state of affairs.  That snapshot will then help you in the future when you return to the task.

Alternatively, if you switch without taking the snapshot, then you’re risking forgetting some things.  You’re also risking the stress of knowing that you left loose ends – and that stress could negatively impact on the task you’ve switched to.  You’re also definitely making it harder for yourself in the future when you return to the original task.

There’s also the risk/chance that someone else will be taking over the task that you’re leaving.  A snapshot you take for them will need to be more extensive than what you’d take for yourself.  Or, if you failed to take the snapshot, you’ve an extra (time) cost to spend reacquainting yourself AND preparing your colleague.

There are other nuances to this but the overall message is the same.  Where possible, stick with something yourself until it’s done.  Doing so will both save time and reduce risk.

Let’s extend that idea out a little – from tasks to projects.  In most workplaces, and particularly in smaller ones, it’s difficult and usually undesirable for people to work on a single project at a time.

However, where possible, it’s desirable to minimise the number of projects because of an additional element to projects – meetings.

Imagine “John” is working on a project and “Mary” is working on another project – both for the same company.  John attends his project meetings – perhaps once a week.  Mary’s the same.  So they both have one project meeting each per week to attend.

John and Mary have the same boss – Susan.  Susan decides that Mary’s project needs to be accelerated so she asks John to start splitting his time between the two projects.  Susan knows that John’s original project will now be delayed – as John’s spending less time on it.

John will now be switching tasks more than he would have been doing.  But he’ll also be attending more meetings.  That (extra) meeting attendance is a further cost to having people work on more than one project.  (He also might not be as skilled at the requirements of Mary’s project – so Susan may get less of a gain than she thought.)

Yes we live in the real world – not in some laboratory somewhere where academic abstractions can dominate.  However, in the effort to maintain optimal effectiveness and productivity, conscious effort to minimise multi-tasking and “multi-projecting” will help.