McKinsey Tells CEOs: Stop Multi-Tasking

bigdog posted on 05/06/11 at 11:37 AM

Here's an interesting tidbit for all us dizzy multi-taskers: McKinsey Quarterly issued a report last January called Recovering from Information Overload that tells senior execs in no uncertain terms: the key to greater productivity is to simply stop multi-tasking - or at least, greatly reduce how and when you do multi-task. 

The argument McKinsey develops is simple: various studies show mounting proof that we really don't make our finest decisions while splitting our attention. What's more, shifting constantly between stimuli may be a fact of modern life, but we really can't handle all the balls we're juggling well. We'd probably work much better and faster if we deal with each important ball in turn. 

I can attest personally to the fact that it takes guts as a CEO to reduce multi-tasking in the office. The calls for your attention are constant, and constantly competing. Plus our whole culture has evolved to split our focus at every turn, from technology to business culture to everyday life.

At the same time, I appreciate McKinsey's point. I've tried to reduce my own multi-tasking selectively when it counts. Certain decisions just require a clear head and no surrounding noisiness, so when I'm faced with one of those I try to block out stimuli, stow the cell phone and email, and really put my full head into contemplating a solution. What's hardest about doing this is really selecting the times when being single-minded matters; I find it impossible to cut out multi-tasking entirely. But whenever I do clear my mind, I'm generally glad I did, and I think the resulting decisions benefit from that clear-headedness. 

What's more, CEOs set the tone for a company's culture by their own example. If a CEO models a smart strategy for multi-tasking (or not, when it's called for), that's a helpful encouragement to everyone on his or her team to do the same.

What about you? How do you decide when it's time to stop multi-tasking and really focus? On the flip side, are there any forms of multi-tasking you'd defend as real improvements

[image: Multi-Tasking and Driving by Mike "Dakinewavamon" Kline on Flickr]


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Posted by bigdog on 05/06/11 at 11:37 AM


spshapiro posted May 08, 2011 (09:06AM)

In a former life, that is before I became a world famous writer of drivel on web sites, I ran construction sites mostly doing commercial, institutional or government work.  The nature of that work generally required performing tasks with impossible schedules.  By this I meant, the job was generally behind schedule on the day that construction commenced (generally due to administrative delays.)  That didn’t matter, there were financial penalties that would be exacted for the late performance.  The consequence of this was that multitasking was a requirement from the start just to try to get back on schedule, and the vast majority of the time overtime was the norm.

I learned rather quickly that when you try to do many things at once, you rarely do anything well, at best you may do it passably, but most of the time you do it well enough that you must fix it on the punchlist.  When you work overtime, you may think at the time you are accomplishing something, but once you’ve been on the job for a certain period of time, the quality of the work deteriorates to the point of it being less than useful, when seen in the light of day.

This never stopped the “bosses” who didn’t work in the field from expecting you to meet the schedule, for they were of the belief that management by blame was an effective mode of work.  Since my job required that I “enforced” the office schedule, but I was responsible for the actual flow of work on the site, I would have to have two schedules;  the office one, and the one that had goals that were attainable and realistic to the job.  We had an expression that was applicable here, “You can’t put 5 pounds of turd in a 3 pound bag.” 

There are real costs to multitasking on a construction site.  That is, someone can get hurt.  Fooling yourself is unproductive at best, and fatal in some circumstances. 

Fiddie posted May 09, 2011 (12:41PM)

Excellent picture, bigdog. I've worked with that guy - scary memories!

I've been a cab driver for nearly a decade now, and that job is all about multitasking.
Talking to fares, watching traffic around me, planning and revising my route on the fly, listening to the two-way business radio, etc.  In all that time haven't been ticketed for an accident or moving violation - only for not wearing a seat-belt (like in the pic above).
I also dispatch occasionally, and that's much more stressful. When busy, dispatching is multitasking 3x what I do driving. (probably 9-12 tasks per minute for several hour!)

Similar to Shap's construction site, hasty multitasking creates confusion and inefficiencies that destroy profits. Poor communication, emotional stress, bad routing, or traffic stops/accidents will destroy customer service, morale, and income opportunities as well. Poor profits for a taxi company means poor fleet maintenance and eventual loss of quality employees.

I hope everyone here learns how to step back, prioritize, delegate, and let minor details slide when multitasking turns ugly.

bigdog posted May 12, 2011 (12:09PM)

Thanks for the comments, guys. I admit to being such a “multi-tasker” at times that if I was younger I might get diagnosed with ADD.  My best memories of multi-tasking at a job include a short stint as a short-order cook for a “roach coach” kind of food van one summer during college, and then my first job working behind the scenes with the earliest online trading system – that job involved juggling several tasks at once in real-time, and constantly “sweeping/wiping/cleaning up behind yourself” (just like at that cooking job).

One of our best brokers here at TradeKing, Warren Harvey, got his start in the business out on the floor of the Pacific Exchange, with a firm that only hired entry-level trainees with previous experience working in a restaurant.


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