Multitasking Exposed

Is working on more than one task at once really more efficient than tackling one thing at a time?


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Multitasking is one of those concepts that has found its way into our daily lives. People claim to be great multitaskers, meaning they can complete many things at once. Yet what is multitasking, and is it really an effective approach to task completion?  

Most dictionaries will define multitasking in two ways. One describes the ability of a computer to run multiple programs at the same time. The other refers to a person’s ability to perform multiple tasks at one time. If multitasking could really be done as effectively by people as by computers, there would be worldwide productivity gains that dwarf the respectable individual gains we see.

If people could really multitask, they would be able to repair two (or maybe even three) machines simultaneously, build two completely different assemblies at once, produce two different technical drawings at the same time, and even conduct two telephone calls with different people and retain 100 percent of what was said in each call.

The truth is, there is little that mere mortals actually complete simultaneously, but we perceive we are multitasking when we share our attention and effort among different tasks. Unfortunately, this approach to completing tasks forces us to continuously restart and refocus. The typical result of multitasking is that it takes longer to complete each task; reduces an individual’s productivity; produces more errors; reduces our ability to retain information; and impairs our ability to make selections and decisions.

Proponents of multitasking believe they are being more effective by working on multiple things at once, and it can be difficult to convince them otherwise (even as they are asking themselves, “Now where was I?”). I do applaud anyone who is trying his best to complete tasks faster. This certainly shows initiative and willingness to improve. But results are the key indicator of any process’ effectiveness. Consider the following examples in which people thought they were effectively multitasking:

• A customer service representative was trying to multitask by assisting two customers on the telephone at the same time. As dedicated and customer-friendly as this person was trying to be, she found herself bouncing back and forth between the two different customers and was forced to place each customer “on hold” numerous times during the calls. The customer service representative became confused and frustrated trying to help both customers at once. Likewise, each customer became upset with the amount of time he was put on hold. Although each customer eventually received the information he needed, the telephone interaction took more than twice as long as it should have.

• An employee claimed to be multitasking by having five different customer orders on his desk. The employee believed he was working on all of the orders at the same time. In reality, he was only able to take action on one order at a time. He would pick up one order and attempt to enter it into the company’s order entry system. If there were no problems, he completed the entire entry process for that order. If he encountered problems, such as incomplete or inaccurate information, he could not finish entering the order and had to put it aside while he began work on another one. Although there were five different orders on this employee’s desk, they were being addressed and handled consecutively, not at the same time. Multitasking was not really happening, and that was a good thing, because if it had been, all five orders might have been started without any one being completed.

• A hard-working machine operator was proud of the fact that she was able to multitask by keeping four CNC lathes running at once. The operator would dutifully wait for the end of a machine cycle and immediately go to that machine, remove a completed part from the chuck jaws and load a new one. Unfortunately, the machines’ cycle times were different, and frequently two lathes would stop at the same time. On occasion, even three machines would simultaneously not be running, regardless of how fast the operator moved. After the shift was over, it was determined that each machine had only been running parts 30 percent of the time. This multitasking effort resulted in each machine being idle 70 percent of the operator’s shift. Of course, the operator-machine ratio was modified soon after, but it was still difficult to keep machines running all of the time, despite the multitasking effort employed.

Lean philosophy teaches that, whenever possible, we should start something and finish it before starting something else. This leads to faster completion times and better-quality outputs. People don’t have the ability to really multitask, and perceived multitasking rarely, if ever, produces the results we need to be successful.