So you think you can multitask?

Posted by Dermot Crowley on 10th July 2017

I was watching MasterChef the other night. OK, so there you have it. This is how I spend the hour a day I save using the Smart Work system! Three of the participants were in a pressure cook-off, and as they hit the last 15 minutes, George Calombaris shouts “Let’s push – you need to multitask now!

I know what he meant when he said that, but he was not correct in suggesting they should ‘multitask’. They needed to do something similar, but multitasking does not work well in a kitchen full of sharp and hot things. From a productivity perspective, multitasking was the buzzword a few years ago, but there has been lots of research since that has shown multitasking is no guarantee of improved productivity.

You see, if you try to do two complex activities at the same time, the quality of one will invariably be diminished. Multitasking only works when you are doing two tasks that are almost automatic for you. So, I can drive and listen to the radio at the same time, but driving and dealing with a complex issue over the phone means that my full attention is not on the road. Even on hands-free. The quality of one of these activities will drop, possibly with dire consequences.

That said, there are some variations on multitasking that can be extremely useful to improve productivity. Next time George tells his chefs to multitask, maybe he should be more specific.

Multitasking

One person doing two tasks at the same time. In general, this can only work effectively if they are both simple tasks requiring little concentration and mental monitoring. In many work situations, multitasking will not improve productivity, because even if there is an efficiency gain, the quality drop will mean you are not working effectively.

Monotasking

Doing just one thing at a time. This strategy is best used for complex work that requires concentration. I am monotasking as I write this newsletter. Turn off distractions, lock yourself away and get on with it. Research suggests you do this sort of work in short bursts of no more than 40-60 minutes.

Task switching

I reckon this is what George was really asking his chefs to do. To physically move quickly between one task and another, while mentally thinking about both. Efficient task switching requires you to think two or three steps ahead, and be able to move quickly to the next activity. Having a plan in place is vital to do this, which is why I am such a big fan of planning your work and working your plan.

Concurrent tasking

This is where we take advantage of other resources to do one activity while we are working on another. So, in the MasterChef kitchen, a contestant can be preparing the main course while the ice cream dessert is cooling in the blast freezer. This final strategy can be a real productivity booster in the workplace as well since we have other resources to help us get stuff done – technology resources and human resources. However, to take advantage of this strategy, we need to be organised and proactive. How often do we miss the opportunity to concurrently task because we have not been organised, have not planned ahead, or have left something until the last minute?

So, next time you hear someone talking about multitasking, get more specific. Think about the jobs to be done, and work out if one of the strategies above will be effective without compromising the quality of the work.

By the way, I did see a shot of one of the chefs trying to stir her broth while chopping onions. Not pretty! She was sent home later that night I believe.