In a fast-paced business culture of "get everything done yesterday," it's easy to admire and reward those busybusy people who always seem to be juggling 14 things at once. But business coach Dave Crenshaw argues that the most common kind of multitasking doesn't boost productivity—it slows you down. In his new book, The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done, Crenshaw explains the difference between "background tasking"—like watching TV while exercising—and "switchtasking," juggling two tasks by refocusing your attention back and forth between them, and losing time and progress in the switch. Crenshaw's on a mission to reduce distractions, interruptions, and fire-fighting at work, and create environments that let employees see through tasks with their full attention before moving onto the next thing. Here's what Crenshaw had to say when I asked him a few questions about changing perceptions and habits around multitasking. Photo by Elsie esq..
Lifehacker: People who have done any kind of reading about personal productivity already know that there's a high cost involved in switching from task to task during your workday. But knowing something intellectually and making changes in your routine to reduce "switchtasking" are two different things. What do you think has to happen for folks used to switchtasking to actually make the changes to their regular routine?
Dave Crenshaw: Switchtasking is a largely cultural problem. I've found that most people actually still believe that multitasking is a productive activity. It is culturally acceptable to switchtask. Smoking is on the decline in the U.S. because it has become less culturally acceptable. As multitasking becomes more and more of culturally unacceptable behaviour, people will makes changes.
However, I find that the best way for people to ultimately make a lasting change is through one-on-one training or therapy. It is a big part why I created the TimeGym program. The worksheets in the book are also helpful because they help readers experience the impact of their own personal switchtasking.
Lifehacker: Many mid-level employees today work in an open office layout without their own office or even cubicle—their desk is just out in the middle of the floor with everyone else's. When you work in this kind of setup, often you're expected to attend to interruptions as they happen. Co-workers stop by your desk to ask a question, you get pulled into a conversation happening two desks down, there's an culture of a quick turnaround on email messages and constant monitoring of the inbox... how can someone who's not an exec or in management reduce their switchtasking without looking like a slacker? Do you run the risk of looking less responsive?
Dave Crenshaw: The situations you are describing really are a huge drain on productivity. It is very difficult for someone in a middle-management or "front line" position to change that kind of environment. Ultimately, a business or an organisation is a reflection of its leader. The leader has to make personal changes before an organisation as a whole can improve productivity systems. If not, the leader will constantly undermine any systemic improvements.
I can offer a couple of suggestions. First: see if you can set up recurring meetings with the people who are interrupting you. In my experience working with people, establishing a recurring meeting at a set place and time is like magic, and it really does cut down on a huge number of interruptions very quickly.
Second: find a way for the leadership of your organisation to pay attention to the impact of switches in the workplace. A few people have commented that they are going to give the book as a gift to their boss because it presents the issue in a casual, non-threatening way.
Lifehacker: Do you think companies are getting better or worse at creating environments that discourage switchtasking?
Dave Crenshaw: I think we are at the beginning of a very long process of change. The large companies working on the problem are only in the very preliminary stages of attacking this issue. Most small businesses aren't even aware of the source of the problem. In general, companies recognise they have productivity issues, but are unsure as to how to proceed. Awareness is increasing, however. Over the next decade I expect we'll see a lot more attention on this issue and a great deal of improvement.
Lifehacker: You've said that technology isn't the reason why we switchtask more, it's the way we use it that's the issue. However, turning off technology (like silencing your ringer or closing down your email inbox) is one of the best ways to focus on something. What do you think about the approach taken by guys like Don Knuth, the computer science author who has eschewed email entirely in order to write books? Or folks who opt out of getting the BlackBerry or Treo because they don't want to deal with the expectations it comes with? Is purposefully refraining from using certain kind of technology extremist, or evolved?
Dave Crenshaw: This is a bit like an amateur carpenter, who, after hitting his thumb with his hammer, curses the tool and tosses it aside. Was the pain caused by the tool, or by the lack of skill of the person using the tool?
A big part of how we use technology comes down to the big WHEN. Shutting technology off completely certainly is not the answer just as it wouldn't be the answer to try to use a rock or your hands to put nails in boards. What we need is more skill training and development. For instance, I know Lifehacker advocates the principle of "firewalling" one's attention. That's a great skill. It helps minimise switches. There are many, many of these new skills that we need to acquire. They have become essential not only to our productivity but to our mental and emotional survival.
Finally, Crenshaw offers a few tips for reducing switchtasking and making better use of your time.
Take control over technology—Your mobile phone ringer (even on vibrate) doesn't need to be on all the time. You can turn off email notification on your computer as well. Become master over the nagging beeps and buzzes by creating some silence.
Schedule what you can schedule—Set regular times in the day and week to check your voicemail and email. Let others know that you will be using that schedule so they know when to expect a reply.
Focus on the person—When you switchtask when dealing with a computer, you simply lose efficiency. But if you switchtask on a human being, you additionally damage a relationship. Be present, listen carefully, and make sure everything has been taken care of before moving on.
Is your office a hotbed of switchtasking or do you have the time and space to focus on what you need to get done without an interruption in the next 10 minutes? Are you constantly scanning your inbox or handheld for new messages when you should be writing that report or crunching those numbers? Tell us what you think about multitasking in today's office in the comments.