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Context Switching

“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” – Lord Chesterfield (1740)

Study after study after study have shown that, due to the natural imperfections built into human memory, multitasking is inefficient and unproductive compared to single-tasking. The bottom line is that humans suck at multitasking. Unlike computers, when humans switch from doing one thought-intensive task to another, the clearing out of memory content from the current task and the restoration of memory content from the previous task greatly increases the chances of errors and mistakes being made.

So why do managers multitask all the time, and why do unenlightened companies put “multitasking prowess” on their performance review forms? Ironically, they do it to reinforce an illusion that multitasking is a key contributor of great productivity and accomplishment. When a “performance reviewer” sees the impressive list of superficial accomplishments that a multitasker has achieved and compares it to a measly list of one or two deep accomplishments from a single-tasker, an illusion of great productivity is cemented in the mind of the ignorant reviewer. Most managers, huge multitaskers themselves, and clueless to the detrimental effects of the malady on performance, tend to reward fellow multitaskers more than non-multitasking “slackers“. Bummer for all involved; especially the org as a whole.

  1. Ray
    January 12, 2010 at 8:45 am

    With the current economic environment some people are being forced to multitask because the companies are getting rid of people. That is not saying the the combined jobs are being done well it just means management can show 100% (or more) utilization of each person. Multitasking will lead to incomplete work at best. I have seen people working multiple tasks really hard (maybe over the per-verbally 100%) But the results were incomplete and needed further work by other people. But they got gold stars. (Sports analogy) Like the running back who runs across the field avoiding tacklers but no gaining much yardage.

    Management multitasking some times appears to be thought of as switching dealing with one person to another. Even though that might seem part of their job.

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