The Dangers of Multitasking

I’ve been reading a lot lately that when it comes to multitasking we are really just fooling ourselves into thinking we are being more productive.   We think that by doing two or three (or more) things at once we are getting more done.  The reality is much different.  Unlike today’s modern computer processors which can handle different tasks at the same time our brains are only able to handle one task at a time.  When we multitask our brains have to stop thinking about the old task and start thinking about the new task each time we switch.

Switching might work great if you are doing something like converting DVD’s so they can play on your iPad which takes a few clicks to launch the software and conversion process then waiting around for an hour or so while the DVD converts and then having to tend to the conversion results once it is over.  During that hour your brain can safely focus on whatever else you need to get done.  The process does not work so well when you try to do rapid fire changes.  For instance, check email during a conference call.  If you do that, your brain, which can only focus on one thing at a time, will either read the email and not listen to the conversation or listen to the conversation and not really read the email.  Either can result in missing a key piece of information that someone is trying to convey to you.

Of course, there are other potentially bad things that can happen when you try to multitask, like what happened to me a few weeks ago when I thought it would be a good idea to check on email during a particularly slow part of a staff meeting.  I got an email with a link to a blog about developing your career.  Since the staff meeting was carrying on about an area not relevant to me I thought this would be a great time to check out the blog.  The problem was the blog was about a cat sitting on a staircase doing things cat’s do while the CEO was talking from the same staircase.  It was so funny I had to catch myself from laughing out loud.  I think I sounded like I choked on something because everyone suddenly was worried about me and wondered why I was chocked up about what they said.  Fortunately, I was able to excuse myself and went to the restroom to recover a little of my quickly disappearing dignity.

I learned my lesson about multitasking during meetings that day, but while that was a quick reminder of the trouble multitasking can get you into, the bigger issue is what has been proven in study after study.  Multitaskers miss critical information being conveyed to them and when it comes to anyone in business, that can be the difference between making a critical connection on a successful endeavor and missing the link that results in yet another missed opportunity.  In today’s world, few businesses can afford the latter.

The 40 Hour Fantasy

The local paper here in Dallas recently had an article in the opinion section on the history of the 40 hour work week and how it came to be enshrined in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  There were interesting slants in the article on how the 40 hour work week was already the standard by time it became law in 1937.  That’s not what really intrigued me about the article.  What I found interesting were the studies on productivity gains from working people more than 40 hours per week that have taken place more recently.

One of the key findings from the studies is there is not a one-for-one relationship between productivity increases and increasing the number of hours worked.  For example, one study found that increasing hours worked by 50% only resulted in a 30% productivity increase.  If you’re paying workers by the hour, this does not seem to be a rational way to increase production, especially considering you have to pay time and a half for those increased hours.

But what if you aren’t paying workers by the hour like most CPAs (who are generally considered exempt employees under the FSLA).  In that case you are getting extra production for free – who cares if the increase in production is not equivalent to the increase in hours.  That’s where another study came in with a very interesting finding.  The study found that the production gain from extra hours deteriorates over time.  That is, you may start out with a 30% production gain for 50% extra hours, but over time that 30% shrinks as workers don’t have enough time to handle personal matters, family and sleep. In fact, eventually productivity goes negative according to this study.  The point of the study was that the productivity surge does work a little while and is a good way to handle a temporary serge in work (can we say busy season or year-end close), but you can’t expect it to go on forever.

As with anything, there are always exceptions to the rule.  I would consider most CEOs and CFOs (and managing partners) to be exceptions, but therein lays the problem.  They don’t personally experience the productivity fall-offs from working the extra hours and therefore don’t understand why it happens in others (or worse assume it happens because the workers are lazy and not trying hard enough).  

On the other hand I think the studies might be a little dated and don’t take into account the location flexibility of the modern knowledge worker.  In today’s world it is possible to leave the office on time (even early?) to get to the kid’s ballgame and eat dinner with the family, take the dog for a walk and help with the homework and then get a little more work done with a refreshed state of mind and a remote connection that is just as efficient as being in the office prior to heading off to sleep for the night. 

As usual, I think the answer may be somewhere in the middle.  Today, I think it might be possible to get a one-for-one increase in productivity to increase in hours with the right mix of flexible work arrangements.  The magic is, if that is true, then it doesn’t take as many hours to get the same increase in productivity as it used to which leave more hours for everyone to enjoy themselves with family and friends.

I would love to see more studies on this subject.