Moving Away from Grasshopper Multitasking

March 17, 2014

This article is the third in a series on how engineers can use brain science to improve their leadership and management skills.

Are you a multitasker? Do you, like a grasshopper, jump from task to task? You text, email, tweet, Google, blog, and talk – and all that in just the last few minutes! You are certainly busy, but are you effective and efficient? That is, are you doing the right things and are you doing them rightly?

If you are open to questioning the effectiveness of such energetic activity, consider the neuroscience-based view of multitasking. In his book Brain Rules, brain researcher John Medina says that it is impossible for brains to do 2 thinking tasks at the same time. Multitasking, which is really jumping or toggling from thinking task to thinking task, is very inefficient because of the time, perhaps unnoticed, needed to resume a task. Medina says that multitasking leads to taking 50% longer to complete a task and a 50% greater likelihood of making errors. Other scientists draw similar conclusions – task performance markedly declines when we try to do more than one thinking task at a time.

Of course, recognizing the foolishness of multitasking goes way back. Publilius Syrus, the Latin writer of maxims, said 2 millennia ago: “To do two things at once is to do neither.” I wonder if executives of efficiency-and-liability-conscious engineering firms know that modern research sings the same song. If they did, prudence suggests that they take preventive action.

The Valued Kind of Multitasking

The just-described negative multitasking is characterized by spending a short period, perhaps a minute or less, on a task and then setting it aside unfinished, and haphazardly jumping to another task, and then to another and so on.

Pausing for a moment, let’s briefly consider a very positive type of multitasking. And let’s personalize it. Assume that you are developing a knowledge-skills-attitude (KSA) set that enables you to plan and successfully complete many different kinds of tasks, and sometimes groups of tasks, that constitute projects. Some of these tasks and projects are design-oriented while others focus on planning, research, experimentation, marketing, writing, speaking, and other functions. Some you finish in an hour, while most require elapsed periods of days, weeks, or months.

Grasshopper Multitasking

Try this for a week: Instead of hopping from task to task, stick with a task to completion. What are the results?

In performing this admirable type of multitasking, you juggle many and varied tasks, eventually finishing all of them; and you are increasingly respected and valued for your contributions. You are proficient at the constructive kind of multitasking. You know how to take on and complete a wide variety of tasks and projects. That productive, in-depth kind of multitasking, compared with the grasshopper version, is powerful and will help you to get ahead.

Benefits of Not Multitasking

What if, as an experiment, we stopped the grasshopper style of multitasking for a while? Peter Bregman, a consultant, in his Harvard Business Review article “How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking,” describes a 1-week experiment in which he tried not to multitask. He largely succeeded and realized the following 5 benefits:

*Noticed more things and interacted more effectively with people

*Made significant progress on projects

*Experienced a dramatic drop in stress

*Lost patience with things that were not a good use of time

*Gained patience for things that were useful and enjoyable

Bregman reported that there were no downsides to not multitasking. Perhaps his experience will motivate you to conduct a similar experiment or escape from multitasking in some other manner.

Moving Away from Grasshopper Multitasking

Given the costs of multitasking and the benefits of not multitasking, how might you reduce your own multitasking tendency? Consider some productive anti-multitasking habits that you could develop. First, prioritize your tasks. Then commit to studying, analyzing, or writing for an hour; calculating for half an hour; or emailing for 15 minutes. Consider setting a timer.

Stick with a task, or a well-defined portion of it, until finished. Try to ignore everything else during these periods or while doing these tasks. When the task, or series of tasks, is finished, reward yourself! Kick back, grab a soft drink or cup of coffee, enjoy one of those candy bars hidden in your desk, or take a walk around the block. Offset some of that intense and productive work, during which you’ve avoided multitasking, with one or more well-earned and pleasurable rewards.

By reducing multitasking, we seek wise use of one of our most valuable gifts – our time, one of the essences of our life. And we have brain science to support us.

  • Thank you Mr.Walesh.I also agree with that you should consider not setting a time–because it will maybe cause that you just for finishing things to do things,but if you don’t set a time you will think over during the process.

  • Very insightful article. Thank you Mr. Walesh. I suggest that you should consider not setting a timer – just get you task done and move on to the next one. Setting a timer will just leave unfinished business and lead to additional and unnecessary multitasking.

    • Mr. Kositsky: One reason for the timer idea is to cause you or me, for some challenging tasks, to temporarily set them aside. When we consciously do that, your or my subconscious mind will continue to work on the task. When we return to the unfinished task, we are very likely to have new ideas or insights or even an “aha!” moment. The conscious and subconscious minds are like the tip of the iceberg and that part we don’t see. That is, the subconscious mind does most of our thinking.

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