The Challenge: More Things to Do Than the Time Available to Do Them

It seems that we’re all facing the more-things-to-do-than-the-time-available-to-do-them challenge these days. “Timesaving” technology has increased expectations of what we can accomplish and how quickly we can accomplish it. The boundaries between work, home, and anywhere else have become blurred. The younger generation routinely juggles several communication devices at once and their elders are catching on.

The Question: You Can Get More Done By Doing Two (or More) Things At Once, Right?

Probably not.


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Multitasking Actually Decreases Productivity

We multitask to get more done, however, in general, taking on more than one task at a time actually decreases productivity. Productivity researchers have found that switching from task to task can cost you as much as 50% efficiency.Shifting attention back and forth between different types of activities requires extra time to refocus.2 Additionally, when our attention is divided, we are more prone to making mistakes. A productivity study conducted by Microsoft revealed that, after being interrupted by electronic messages, it took workers 10–15 minutes to return to their main task.3 A University of London study found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduced mental capability by an average of 10 IQ points, which would be similar to the effect of missing a whole night’s sleep!4

It Can Be Downright Dangerous!

Drivers who text. A parent who gets distracted while his toddler is in the bathtub. Multitasking e-mailers who accidentally “reply all,” broadcasting embarrassing or incriminating messages. In some situations, splitting attention even for short periods can have tragic effects.

Some May Be Better Than Others At It

Whether skill can be attributed to genetics, generation, or pure practice, it does seem that some are better at multitasking than others. Brain researchers note differences in male and female brains that imply greater communication and cooperation between the two hemispheres in female brains,5 which may give women an advantage. While it’s generally assumed that “Net Geners” are better at multitasking, this may not be true. Research by the Institute for the Future of the Mind at Oxford concludes that 18–21 year-olds aren’t any better than 35–39 year-olds in maintaining their concentration when interrupted by a phone call or an instant message.6

Consider This:

“To do two things at once is to do neither.”—Publilius Syrus

Try This: Focus and Finish One Thing At a Time

High impact activities, such as thinking, planning, creating, deciding, prioritizing, and listening deeply, require mental focus and energy. Give yourself undistracted time and space to concentrate on these. Turn off your e-mail, phones, and other noise. The bottom line: “If you’re trying to accomplish many things at the same time, you’ll get more done by focusing on one task at a time, not by switching constantly from one task to another.”—Joshua S. Rubinstein, David E. Meyer, and Jeffrey E. Evans 7

When Tempted, Consider Other Strategies

When you need to improve your efficiency, consider other productivity strategies before resorting to multitasking. Batch short tasks, such as reading and responding to routine e-mail, instead of taking them on one at a time as they come. Look for tasks that could be delegated, automated, or simply ignored.

If You Must, Multitask “Autopilot” Tasks

Multitasking works best when one of the tasks doesn’t require conscious attention and the other doesn’t require much focus or mental energy. Watch a sitcom while doing repetitive physical tasks, such as simple sorting or exercising. Listen to music while you brush your teeth. Daydream while you prepare a simple recipe you’ve been making for years, but not one you have to read. Parents, delete a few emails while you’re on hold with the bank, but not while your teenager is trying to tell you something. And (Netgener eye-roll) learn to use the features of your electronic devices so you, too, can navigate them on autopilot.

Apply & Evaluate: What Do You Notice?

Notice what happens when you try these tactics:

  • Are you an average Smartphone user who checks your device 150 times a day? Turn yours off while you take on an important task that requires concentration.
  • When someone you’re trying to talk to is doing something else, notice how you feel and the effectiveness of the conversation. (Consider that next time you are the listener.) Pause until you have their attention.
  • Figure out which tasks you can actually accomplish adequately as multitasks.

Take Action: Now What?

Multitasking actually decreases productivity. You will usually come out ahead by concentrating on one thing at a time. Focus and finish. Listen completely. Act mindfully.


Find More Articles Like This in Leaders Lab: 66 Ways to Develop Your Leadership Skill, Strategy, and Style


  1. Debra Viadero, “Instant messaging found to slow students’ reading,” Education Week, August 15, 2008,
  2. Joshua S. Rubinstein, David E. Meyer, and Jeffrey E. Evans, “Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 27, No. 4 (2001), 763–797.
  3. Ron Alsop, The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 154.
  4. David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies For Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus and Working Smarter All Day Long (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 36.
  5. Pat Heim and Susan Murphy, In the Company of Women: Turning Workplace Conflict into Powerful Alliances (New York, Tarcher, 2001), 77.
  6. Alsop, The Trophy Kids Grow Up, 154.
  7. Rubinstein, Meyer and Evans, quoted in Leadership Strategies 4, No. 12 (December 2001).

©New Century Leadership LLC 2015