The Illusion of Multi-Tasking

If you find yourself trying to figure out how to make everything priority Number One, you are fighting against a natural law that I call the Principle of Simultaneous Exclusion. The Principle of Simultaneous Exclusion is pretty simple:

When we chose to do one thing, we are by definition choosing not to do other things. 

Profound, eh? Not really. Other people call it "Opportunity Cost."  For example, I have chosen to sit down and write this blog entry right now. In choosing to do this, I have chosen not to write an invoice, call a client, go to the grocery store or update my receipts from last week. In fact, there are an infinite number of things that I can’t possibly be doing while I sit here and write this entry.

Do one thing well or all things poorly  As leaders, with many initiatives and many priorities, we are often paralyzed by the Principle of Simultaneous Exclusion. We know that we should be engaging our employees, mentoring our high-performers, establishing our vision, coaching the leaders who report to us and, by the way, speaking to our customers, collaborating with finance, establishing metrics for fourth-quarter sales, etc etc etc. And this is just within the time frame we have allotted to “work.” There are also priorities related to our health, our family, our friends and our social responsibilities that will each take time that could be focused on something else.

Sometimes we try to circumvent the Principle of Simultaneous Exclusion by invoking the Illusion of Multi-Tasking. I call this the Illusion of Multi-Tasking because the only consistent outcome from trying to do it is a lesser quality performance on all of the multiple tasks. In the September 2009 issue of Psychology Today, a study was reported based on the fact that the authors suspected there were actually people who could effectively do multiple tasks effectively. They studied a number of combinations of people and tasks, including those who said they were expert multi-tasker’s and those that said they were not.

Although the authors went into the study with something of a bias toward finding the “multi-tasking” trait, they discovered that there simply was not one. Regardless of how the people evaluated their own behavior, they were less able to complete even simple tasks when they were doing multiple ones. In other words, we do not multi-task effectively. In fact, we do it so poorly that such things as driving-while-texting are as dangerous as driving drunk.

If you are trying to attend to multiple priorities and, as a result, not attending to any one priority effectively, the first thing you need to do is take a look at your team. Who is on your team that has the strengths or ability to do some of the things you are trying to do? Who on your team would even enjoy doing some of the things you have reserved for yourself? And are there multiple people on your team who could work together to achieve some of your objectives while at the same time increase their own learning and development through the activity?

If you think the answer is “no,” then you should ask the team. Showing them the multiple priorities, and asking them to help determine how best to meet those priorities can yield great results. For one thing, you will find greater engagement by the team members. As an added bonus, you will likely also find that the result of focused effort on the part of the team members, as opposed to the unfocused effort on your own, will create a better outcome in the long run.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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