Can we all please stop talking about how much we’re multitasking? The concept is basically a myth.

The free (blog) content on Harvard Business Review is endlessly fascinating to me, because the “most e-mailed” or “most shared” section typically involves a list of titles about “maximizing your day” or “spending your first 10 minutes at work” or “shuffling between competing priorities.” Clearly, people are interested in reading about these topics — it’s just a little bit different to actually do them.

We have another one today. This article is about “The Cost of Continuously Checking Your E-Mail.” We’ve talked about this before on this blog — see here and here —  and in reality, e-mail checking is basically the worst thing ever for productivity and staying on task of actual work. The problem with e-mail is basically a network effect, though: because everyone uses it for updates and timelines and all that, if you go off it for a while, you can miss crucial information. No one wants to be out of the loop at work (even though everyone is kinda always out of the loop).

Here’s the most interesting section of the HBR article, though:

Multitasking, as many studies have shown, is a myth. A more accurate account of what happens when we tell ourselves we’re multitasking is that we’re rapidly switching between activities, degrading our clarity and depleting our mental energy. And the consequences can be surprisingly serious . An experiment conducted at the University of London found that we lose as many as 10 IQ points when we allow our work to be interrupted by seemingly benign distractions like emails and text messages.

One of the most frustrating things at any job is when you need someone’s time / attention for a project, and they keep telling you how busy they are with other things. Just so much multi-tasking going on, guys! In a way, of course, this is a badge of honor — kind of like being busy as a whole. People love to tell others (and think themselves) that they have a lot going on, hand in many different pots, working on many projects, etc. — because in a way that says to the world (and yourself) that you’re valuable in the eyes of someone else or the broader organization. It’s very important, obviously, to feel that you’re adding value to what you’re doing — and multi-tasking / having a lot going on will help you feel that way. Problem is, multi-tasking doesn’t really exist. All it seems to do is make you less good at eight things as opposed to really stellar at two.

This is kind of like the idea of “mise-en-place” in business: when you get a day going, think about the various competing priorities you have (the things you will no doubt refer to as “multi-tasking” later in the day). Rather than trying to do all 8-10 things, focus on 2-3. And in terms of e-mail (probably the single-biggest distractor), try this: check your e-mail once for about 20-30 minutes in the morning, and respond to people saying you might not be on e-mail as much during the day. Then check it for about 20-30 minutes near the end of the day. You can do it. And meetings — well, meetings can be the devil, but there are ways around it.

See, you actually can focus your day so that you don’t have to multi-task and can treat your brain more effectively. It takes some discipline — some habit formation, possibly — but it can be done. You just need to think about work less as a vanity exercise, and more as a fundamental effort to get things done in an effective manner with the skills and resources you have.


Ted Bauer


  1. Those studies on multitasking also show that the multiple jobs generally get done at lower quality than if the person had simply done that job alone. There are also studies showing productivity drops after long hours, the sweet spot for most being around 35-40 hours, a little longer for truly mindless, repetitive tasks.

    Of course long hours and multitasking are the norm for almost everyone, so it seems no one gives a shit.

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