13 December 2010

Multitasking is the enemy of focus

I heard a nice quote last week; "Multitasking is the enemy of focus."

We all know it's bad, and yet many of us are stuck in a mode of trying to get too many things done at once.  Times are tough, right?  We just have to dog deep and get things done, right?

Take a breath and brace yourself.  (And in the interests of your time efficiency I'll keep this short.)

An experiment was run observing people's ability to multi task procurement work for complex systems.  This is roughly equivalent to  managing the handover of requirements to a vendor or internal development team.

People were observed working on 1, 5, 10 and 20 concurrent initiatives.

Here's the lowdown;
  • If you worked on 5 activities instead of 1 you increased your effort per job by 64%
  • If you worked on 10 activities you increased your effort by 126%
  • If you worked on 20 activities you increased your effort by 240%
And that's just to get the work order (aka specifications) shipped.  Once you get a response the effort per task becomes even more complicated.
  • 5 activities instead of 1 you increased your effort per job by 195%
  • 10 activities you increased your effort by 283%
  • 20 activities you increased your effort by 476%
Let me draw you a picture.  Imagine the bars are project staff levels.  What would you do?

The paper I got these figures from is full of further information including statistical discussion, an explanation of the methodology and so on.  Check it out;


  1. i wonder about the type of activity that is measured here and if it corresponds over to my work as a BA. that's measuring work orders, a fairly repetitive task, but one that has to be done with much precision in a short period of time.

    BA work is, as i see it, a precise work over a much longer horizon than the duration of a typical work order. yes, i have noticed that when i have a dozen projects going (counting all the different systems i support and all the projects in their various phases i'm working on) that it becomes a lot more difficult to manage them all. it also gives me the opportunity to have my brain free associate between one project and another, which often leads to insights i would not have had were i not multitasking.

    yes, in crunch time, multitasking kills. i do however see that it does provide me with some benefit in return. that may not be the case for everyone, but it is what works for me.

  2. Hey Ted,

    The big question: Is anyone specifically measuring this in a project context?

    I'm not. I do measure what I can though and I have seen my personal productivity skyrocket when I kill concurrent activities and interruptions.

    Something I think I should have gotten into in the post is a definition of multitasking. For instance projects are made up of many discreet activities.

    It should be very feasible to manage many different project activities for many different projects in the course of a week as long as you are prioritizing and planning the work sufficiently.

    The problem is when you literally try to do many things at once; you begin one activity before you complete the other.

    And to your point on the simplicity of the work orders in the experiment - once you break down a set BA tasks most of them (except the planning and people issues) should also become simple. (I do think it's a good analogy for our work.)

  3. Anonymous2:45 am

    Very interesting article. I am not sure if multitasking is detrimental or not. I use project management software to keep me organized (www.elementool.com). I complete my projects on time and I multi-task all the time. I think it depends on the person really.

  4. Anonymous4:59 am

    Totally agree with this. As a developer this is 100% true!

  5. @Anonymous, while it is true that there are differences between individuals, cognitive psychologists have known for a long time that human beings are really not designed for multitasking - see for example the references in

  6. Anonymous8:12 am

    Thanks Nick. I actually am well versed in Psychology ( have a masters) and have studied cognitive psychology for a bit. Humans are not designed to multi-task. Some are better than others though (it really depends on how powerful your working memory is).

  7. @craig just saw your reply. sorry i missed it before. anyway, i don't know of anyone who is specifically measuring it, but it would be interesting to see the results. part of the problem, as i see it in a project context, would be ascribing multitasking failures v/s project as a whole failures. that's a very difficult line to draw to say 'person A is responsible because of too much multitasking' v/s 'the entire project failed.' i think its an interesting thing to try and measure, but the large number of variables that a project would introduce would make this very difficult to study.

  8. Multitasking is evil, very very evil in all stituations and all jobs.

    I'm trying to aply pomodoro technique to my days :) is a working in progress but I'm doing some progress.