Is there a benefit of Multitasking?


The current trend of online virtual work environment allows us to perform multiple tasks at the same time. You could have multiple applications open on your computer, tempting you to work on all of them at the same time. Is it really productive for us humans to perform multiple activities simultaneously?

Imagine a common high pressured work day environment, when deadlines loom large and a supervisor asks his worker to finish multiple tasks by the end of the day, when in normal course of work the same set of tasks would have required double the amount of time to achieve the desired level of quality in work output. The worker tries to multitask and rushes to complete his tasks because he cannot say ‘No’ to the supervisor. The work output is completed and delivered on time, but in this rush, quality of the work output has suffered.

In the aftermath, when the client discovers less than expected level of quality, or unexpected defects in the work output, further rework is needed. The result is additional costs, reduced margins and a dissatisfied customer.

So, why would anyone not understand the limits of human multitasking capabilities? We are different from machines. We design machines to automate, multitask and execute our activities. It is an error, for us to assume the multitasking role of computers.

If we are aware of our own limits for the sake of quality of our work output, we need to focus on only one task at a time, and delegate the rest to others, either machines or other humans.

The PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) published by PMI (Project Management Institute) lists two techniques for Schedule Compression, that can be used when deadlines are just around the corner.

The first technique is Crashing, that involves engaging additional resources to speed up execution of tasks without sacrificing quality.

The second technique is Fast Tracking, that involves execution of those tasks in parallel, that do not have a sequential relationship. Of course, each task is performed by dedicated workers, assigned to that task.

PMI does not encourage the execution of multiple tasks simultaneosly by the same worker, because the quality of work output is paramount. Rework and fixing of defects in the work output is much more expensive.

So, the next time you are asked by your supervisor to multitask, remind him about the perils of doing that.

Places to go from here:

Multitasking and Innovation in Virtual Teams
Human Multitasking


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5 Responses to Is there a benefit of Multitasking?

  1. Lou Covey says:

    Human beings have always “multi-tasked” but we haven’t always called it that. Consider a chef in a kitchen. If it takes 30 minutes to cook the meat, 20 minutes to cook the rice and 15 minutes to prepare the salad, he doesn’t wait for one to be done before starting the next task. He is doing it “simultaneously” but yet still in sequential order. that is, in essence, multi-tasking. If a particular task takes your entire concentration for the entire time it takes to do the work, no, you cannot multi-task, but unless you are holding a colleague by a rope over the edge of a cliff, you probably have the mental and physical bandwidth to do manage than one thing at a time.
    What you need to be able to effectively multi-task is both the capability of knowing how to manage your time and what each task requires in time and effort; and you need an open flow of communication between you and your management regarding what the priorities are.
    Some managers might say “everything is important,” but you have to keep in mind that everything that is a priority is not necessarily important, and vice versa. Priorities are what get done first.
    When I was working in newspapers I had a managing editor who appreciated the amount of work I could produce and dumped a lot on me. It became stressful and unproductive as he would constantly bug me about when a certain story would be done. In turn, he would get frustrated when I walked into his office with a dozen stories for him to review and edit, which would put him behind in his work. Finally I turned to him and said, “OK, what do you want to see first?” and then listed out all the work I was doing. In a few minutes he was able to think that question through and give me an answer. I was able to finish up what he really wanted and while he was reviewing one thing I could continue working through my pile. Together, we were “multi-tasking” even though we were working through projects sequentially.
    Managers only get nervous and pushy when they see nothing being produced, even though production is in process. Include them in the process and they become team leaders.

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  3. humanoid says:

    Good day everybody. Every person is a bio-robot having an individual program (or software). Without an operating system (“software”) cannot work; without a program – a human being too will not operate. Take a look — Catalog of human population (chp)

  4. Good job! what a great post!