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Task Switching: The Pernicious Purloiner of Productivity

How often have you heard people brag about what great multi-taskers they are?  Perhaps you’ve made the same boast yourself.  You might even have heard that “Gen Y” people are natural multi-taskers, having lived their whole lives constantly switching their attention from texting to IMing to Facebooking to watching TV, all supposedly without missing a beat.  I’ve even seen training classes designed to teach managers how best to multi-task their Gen Y staff, the implication being that asking an employee to focus on a single task through to completion has now become ridiculously old-fashioned, if not heretical to the new world order.

Don’t believe it.  First of all, true multi-tasking is something human beings are only minimally capable of doing.  Think juggling with one hand while brushing your teeth with the other.  Sure, there are people who can train themselves to do both tasks simultaneously, but not many, and likely not well.  And in any case, such individuals are more likely to be found in a circus than in a typical office environment.

So psychologists and organizational development specialists have begun to use the term “task switching” in lieu of multi-tasking, arguing (correctly) that task switching more accurately describes the norm of Gen Y, and of the business world generally.  Specifically, task switching refers to the interruption of a task in progress, for the purpose of picking up a separate task.  Sounds like something we all deal with hundreds of times a day, right?  You might even be thinking, “Hey, that’s just modern reality—either figure out a way to get good at it, or get left behind.”

The truth, however, is that task switching is slowing us down a lot—by a whopping 40 percent, according to many studies (see https://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx for a review of such studies).  Are we really so surprised that it could cause such a huge productivity loss?  After all, when we see focused execution in action, we can’t help but marvel at how much faster it is.  For instance, many of us put in an hour or two of work either early in the morning, or late at night, “because that’s when I can really get things done”—in other words, when we’re able to minimize interruptions and task switching.  Ever see someone solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than 30 seconds?  They’re not task switching.  Many software developers talk about how incredibly productive they are when they can eliminate all distractions and “get in the zone.”  In fact, the software industry came up with the Agile methodology and its “sprints,” in part, to promote this type of focused execution on software-development projects.

Of course, just having your project’s tasks time-boxed into a sprint doesn’t, by itself, do anything to eliminate task switching.  In fact, when you hear examples of Agile failures, it’s a good bet that pervasive task switching was one of the main culprits.  After all, it’s relatively straightforward to time-box a set of tasks, but takes real leadership to structure a work environment and foster a culture that promote single-task focus as the desired norm.

Can you guess what industry has the most advanced, mature adoption of single-task focus?  Maybe the software industry?  Sure, some software companies achieve high productivity this way, but they are more the exception.  How about healthcare providers? They certainly have examples, such as an operating room or an exam room, in which single-task focus predominates, but most other aspects of healthcare delivery are plagued with task switching.  Perhaps the military?  Many operational aspects of warfighting certainly promote single-tasking, and battle plans are often designed around focusing fighting units on a single objective.  However, most military commanders would not characterize the real-world experience of fighting a battle as lacking in interruptions; on the contrary, they emphasize the importance of “adapting and improvising,” which sound more like task switching than single-task execution.

The answer is the education industry.  For centuries, the entire operational model of a school has been designed to promote focus on a single lesson at a time, through to completion.  While some schools certainly do this better than others, it would be absurd to imagine any school in which the science teacher rushed into math class mid-period, interrupted the math lesson with a science lesson, and then rushed back out without even finishing the science lesson.

Yet we have come to view this absurdity as normal—even desirable—in our project environments and in the business world generally.  We have somehow convinced ourselves that it’s just the way things are, that there’s nothing we can do about it, even if we wanted do, in spite of examples as common as a school showing us that it’s not really so rare, or such an advanced management science concept.  If you are an executive or a project manager, do you really have any excuse for allowing such an enormous drain on productivity to persist?  Can you afford to?

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