Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Perils of Distracted Work - It should be illegal. I'm on a rant.

Call your Legislator, your Representative. Call the President. Let's rally the Tea Party, any party, its a bipartisan issue. The deadly impact of distracted work isn't getting enough recognition.

On the other hand, distracted driving is getting appropriate attention. The news that legislatures around the country are recognizing the dangers of distracted driving and passing legislation that would outlaw activities like texting, phoning, eating, and general fiddling is based on the same science that suggests that distracted work is equally perilous. The actions of our legislative bodies are well supported by research and science. There is danger in distracted driving.

However, I'm really talking about multitasking at work. And just like there are many who would adamantly brag about their ability to drive and use their cell phone, there are many managers who insist that multitasking is a prerequisite to today's demanding workplace. However, there is a cost and a danger associated with multitasking and it is not getting attention.

I'm on a rant here because I have been frustrated in my ability make the point that there is peril in multitasking. We know we have to multitask to succeed in today's environment. However there is a myth about multitasking not supported by research, science, and results.

Others are also meshing with this topic in agreement. Blogger Terry Starbucker in The Secret To A Lifetime Of Productivity - And Five Ways to Find It when he wrote that one of the five keys to is:
Reduce the multitasking - severely. Think about how hard it is to have a meaningful phone conversation while you are answering e-mail or Tweeting at the same time. Now add the critical task of prioritization on top of that. Tilt!! Our minds are a marvel of nature, but there not that good!

Further meshing of the concept came as I read Gary Woodill's post Stop Multitasking and Start Working on Workplace Learning Today blog where he cited a New York Times article Meet the Life Hackers. I could only laugh as the article noted that, "And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task." Don't they know that many of us have work days that typically includes 3 to 4 hours of meetings with 30 or 60 minutes blocks of time between those meetings. The calendar image is my actual schedule for tomorrow and I don't think that it is unusual in my work.

Let's do some simply math. If you have 60 minutes between meetings to work on an ongoing task, you spend the first 25 minutes reacquainting yourself with your work. That leave's 35 minutes to focus. But 35 minutes assumes that there were no colleagues looking for you to return from your meeting and waiting to "GAM" you. (GAM is the acronym that I use to frame the outcome of when a colleague says those three magic words, "got a minute?")

I'm on an uncharacteristic Lead Quietly rant. I first brought up the challenges of multitasking almost exactly one year ago when I reviewed the wonderful book Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by Dr. John Medina. In Brain Rules, Medina's cautions about multitasking. His approach is much more scientific in proposing that, in reality, the brain simply cannot multitask.

In fact, as I was searching today, I failed to find a single proponent of multitasking. But I'll keep looking. In the meantime consider two quotes from a PBS Frontline interview with Standford professor, Clifford Nass:

We have not yet found something that [multitaskers] are definitely better at than people who don't multitask.

we could be essentially undermining the thinking ability of our society....Multitasking is one of the most dominant trends in the use of media, so we could be essentially dumbing down the world.

I'm looking for opinions on multitasking via comments. Do you feel that your workplace encourages you to take on more and more tasks in parallel? Can you cite instances of successful multitasking. Perhaps most importantly, do you have recommendations that would help quiet leaders resist the demand for multitasking.

Thanks for reading. Please stay focused, keep meshing, and lead quietly.



Anonymous said...

Dear Don

What a great article again! Thank you for this.

Incidently, this was I needed as a reminder.


Anonymous said...

Yes! Thank you for this. I'm really of a mind that our addiction to multitasking is as insidious as any other. Though I don't know whether we can gain any purchase on what is already such a slippery slope, I'm glad to see it getting questioned more.

Christy Schutz said...

Enjoyed and totally agree your post. I have been trying to come to terms with this in my own mind and daily work schedule. And not to make this into a gender discussion, but, as a woman, there is this societal assumption that we are all supposed to be able to do 10 things at once. After all, we've had to develop this skill in order to talk on the phone, while bouncing a baby on our hip, while cooking dinner, while mentally rehearsing tomorrow's big pitch, etc. As a result, there is immense pressure on women to multi-task effectively. In Marcus Buckingham's book, "Find Your Strongest Life," he tries to debunk the whole multi-tasking myth by citing several studies that equated mental output and productivity in these scenarios to be like losing a night's sleep or being intoxicated. Thanks for the inspiration...I feel my own rant/blog post coming on!

Don Frederiksen said...

@T and @MMC

Thanks for the comments.

There are parts of multitasking that can be very addicting.

In my case, I feel that I can compartmentalize at work and focus only on work tasks. But my rant is coming from just wanting to be productive and just looking for an opportunity to succeed.

Thanks for visiting.

Don Frederiksen said...


THANK YOU for raising the gender discussion. When I perform a Google search on women and multitasking, there are a great number of references that that propose the expectations that you site.

Where did those expectations come from?

Your comment and a review of your blog brought to mind perhaps the biggest casualty of multitasking; listening.

Thanks for sharing. Please visit again.

Rob Tucker said...

Dear Don,
I think there's a difference between the brain multi-tasking (which it does all the time and does well -- think breathing and regulating heartbeat -- both tasks handled by subroutines within the brain) and the mind multi-tasking -- the conscious awareness we bring to a situation. This mind or attentional space is the bottleneck. The best article I've read on it is Miller's 7 +/- Two article and Bernard Baars Theater of Consciousness work. Neat and reinforces what you are saying with high quality neuroscience. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Definitely agree with your comments here. Managers I know typically instant message while in meetings or respond to email. It would be so much more efficient if they single tasked and either participated in the meeting or opted out of the meeting all together and just sat at their desk and did email. One of the newer things that has contributed to multi-tasking or distracted working is the condensation of cubicles. Many companies are going for a smaller real estate space where they pack more bodies in. This is great from a financial perspective, but hell for employees looking to have a quiet, focused work space.