4 Ways Multi-tasking Decreases Productivity (And How to Avoid It) 

Project Management

by Joseph Griffin

Kevin Currie

Joseph A. Griffin, PMP®  is a faculty member in Northeastern University’s Master of Science in Project Management program. He is an active member of the international chapter of the Project Management Institute, and serves as the VP of Professional Development for the PMI-Metrolina chapter in Charlotte, NC.

As a faculty member in Project Management at Northeastern University, I often cover multi-tasking in my lectures.

People think it’s a great idea, and even go so far as to brag about it in their resumes and in interviews. 

Newsflash: Multi-tasking is probably productivity’s biggest enemy. It doesn’t make us more efficient. It simply splits our time.

Here’s why it’s a bad idea.

1. It doesn't make mathematical sense.

Let’s say you’ve been assigned three projects, and each one will take three days to complete. You have nine days of work, and you work equally on each activity each day, dividing your day into thirds. You’ll complete all of the projects at the end of day nine. If you’d done one at a time, you’d have completed one project in three days and another in six days!

2. Our brains aren't wired that way.

Multi-tasking hampers our ability to think critically. In general, humans are unable to switch from one item to another without losing focus, losing attention and losing productivity. Need proof? Just envision yourself trying to complete a homework assignment while also getting texts from your spouse, browsing Facebook and responding to emails. Pretty bad, right?

3. Deadlines make work take longer.

It might sound odd, but deadlines are a bad idea. It’s called Parkinson’s law: When you work from staggered deadlines, work expands to fill the time allotted. If you have a week to complete a project, chances are you’ll begin working on it at the last minute when you can still safely deliver it within that week. (Admit it!)

On the other hand, if you work from a start date on one project at a time, you’d increase productivity. I used to work in construction. Instead of telling a painter I wanted a house finished by April 1, I’d tell him that I wanted him to begin painting on March 15 and work until the job was done. I knew the job only took five days. Presto, he was done on March 20, and I’d rescued 10 days from being wasted in my schedule.

4. Not all work is created equal.

Good project managers set clear expectations about what work should take priority. In the absence of a good project manager, it’s up to you to understand that not all work is equally important. Spending three hours analyzing a paper is probably more important than commenting on multiple discussion posts. You might look good, working on multiple deadlines at once, but you’re actually being inefficient. A savvy student, worker or boss doesn’t want to look good. They want to be good. That’s why it’s important to focus on one project at a time.

 

Ways to Avoid Multi-tasking

If this sounds daunting, here’s two pieces of advice.

Create a “keystone habit” in your life. These are habits that reorder our lives. It can be exercise, volunteering or—in this case—schoolwork. A positive keystone habit that anchors your time and organizes your day will help you stay disciplined and focused.

Think of life in shifts. There’s a work shift, a family and personal time shift, and hopefully a sleep shift. Figure out what shift is your sweet spot, and do your schoolwork during this time. Maybe it’s early in the morning; maybe it’s late at night. If you understand your sweet shift, you’ll automatically be more productive—and less prone to multi-tasking.

 

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