Multitasking Is a Myth; Focus Is the Solution

One simple reason why many agile (and traditional) projects fail is the multitasking myth — the team members are working on more than one project. They are allocating time as needed across multiple unrelated activities.

There’s a commonly held belief that humans are capable of multitasking. The theory is that we can juggle many balls; do more than one thing at a time; handle multiple activities simultaneously. It’s all a myth.

Humans can switch contexts rapidly with a resulting loss of productivity but we can’t multitask; unless you consider walking and chewing gum at the same time to be multitasking. Anything that requires intellect and reasoning also requires focused concentration.

What appears to be multitasking is really context switching. The latter involves stopping the activity in progress (call it #1), saving its current state, recalling the last state of the new activity (call it #2), and starting to work on activity #2.

Depending on the complexity of activities 1 and 2, you may be able to switch contexts very fast — or not. For complex, detailed activities, a context switch may take several minutes, maybe even half an hour. Keep in mind that you will have to switch contexts again when you go back to the first activity.

If you are working on 3-4 projects (not at all unusual in the corporate world), you will likely have to switch contexts 8-10 times per day and possibly more. If you lose 15 minutes each time, you’ve lost over 2 hours every day. That’s 25% of your time spent on unproductive context switching.

Making matters worse, if you don’t take the time to fully switch contexts and get your mind wrapped around the new activity, your risk of making a mistake increases dramatically.

Now you understand why so many projects are late, so many mistakes are made, and so many people are burned out.

How do you fix it? Focus.

Working on only one project may not be possible in today’s fast-paced corporate world. If that can’t happen, minimize context switching. Try to block out large chunks of time to focus on one project — preferably an entire day, but at least half a day.

Obviously, avoid having your time interrupt-driven by phone calls, emails, text messages, etc. Take as much control as over your time as you can.

Updated: January 9, 2011 — 10:54 pm