May 12, 2012    /    by

How Multitasking Hurts Our Productivity

Most of us always trying to do multiple activities at the same time. But is it really working?

  Most of us are trying to do multiple activities at the same time. But is it really working?

  For example, I like to keep “to do” lists. I get special satisfaction when I complete one action item and the result is that multiple items come off of my list. More often than not, I’m tempted to multitask, especially at work. On top of that, I’m instinctively looking for new tips and shortcuts that can help me gain a further edge in accomplishing my personal and professional goals.

These are just some of the reasons that reading the recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog entitled: The Magic of Doing One Things at a Time by Tony Schwartz was eye-opening and relevant for me. Here’s an excerpt with some questions worth considering:

“Do you answer email during conference calls (and sometimes even during calls with one other person)? Do you bring your laptop to meetings and then pretend you're taking notes while you surf the net? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you make calls while you're driving, and even send the occasional text, even though you know you shouldn't?”

I’m certainly guilty at times. More than that, I tend to think of multitasking as a virtue. If I can do 3-4 things at the once, I’m getting more done. I’m closer to the finish line.

Not so, says recent research. This perspective has been shown to be a fallacy, and multitasking usually leads to less productivity and not more. If you have a hard time believing this, check out this piece and corresponding study which says that multitasking makes us feel good but delivers fewer meaningful results. Or, read one of the thousands of articles about the dangers of multitasking.

But back to the first blog - Schwartz has some great tips for workplace norms around meetings, constant urgency of tasks and the importance of taking regular breaks.

Here are some personal takeaways:

1)     Do the most important thing at the beginning of the day with dedicated (uninterrupted) time.

2)     Establish dedicated time to think creatively, strategically and long-term.

3)     Take real and regular vacations.

These items make sense to me. Still, they are hard to build consistently into my life as habits. On the last point about vacation, I was astounded recently when a well-respected vendor colleague told me that he has not taken a vacation of two days or more in over seven years. He regularly just gives up his vacation days and cannot carry them over to the next year. Nor is he even paid for his sacrifice. He’s just too busy to take time off and relax.

Side note: I told him that I saw this as was one advantage of being a government employee on a salary and not on a commission. I am just as driven to work hard and accomplish things as my friend, and I would be tempted to never stop working as well. Bottom line, I need my vacations way more than I’ve realized, but I often need to be pushed by my wife and children to take them and truly disconnect or focus on other important things offline. 

Perhaps you’re wondering: what does any of this have to do with technology or cybersecurity? Quite a bit, I think. Rising stress and feelings of being overwhelmed are serious concerns for security professionals, and I wrote about this topic as problem 6 for security professionals in my list of the top seven reasons security pros fail

More than that, the explosion of mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads has only increased temptation to multitask more in 2012. In addition, many large governments organizations still manage cybersecurity as an "other duty as assigned" for technology professionals rather than dedicating a team to focus on tasks related  to cybersecurity. This multitasking approach can make it difficult to perform tasks with the required level of vigilence and expertise. Even government groups that have good centralized cyber teams that focus on Internet threats and mitigating enterprise risks can be pulled in multiple directions at the same time and need to take note of this research.

In an interesting twist, Tony Schwartz actually starts his blog off with the ever-so-common theme of being burned out at work. We can all relate to this topic at some point in our careers. Last year, almost half of the employers surveyed said that their employees felt burned out.

Bottom line, no matter what career track or professional role we are in, the “How can we truly be more productive?” question is worth contemplating. Whether I’m working with my kids, my staff, my customers or my smartphone, LESS (activity) and a singular focus on the task at hand is actually MORE (productive and effective).

What are your thoughts on multitasking? Are employees in your office feeling burned out? What strategies have worked for you? I’d love to hear your stories.