Switching Costs

Multitasking – Just a myth

Replying to an email, checking your messages and brainstorming on your next project all during a project team meeting? Does that sound familiar? A lot of us consider ourselves to be multitasking wizards. Well, it turns out that we’re reducing our productivity by a staggering 40%.

Multitasking is real we do it all day everyday, whether it’s walking and talking at the same time, watching that movie whilst ironing or slightly more challenging rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time. However there’s a big difference between eating an apple whilst running and responding to an email whilst driving. The former involves carrying out two simple tasks simultaneously, two tasks that we’ve evolved to perform instinctively.

Our relatives in the animal kingdom can perform multiple simple tasks simultaneously so it should be fair to say that we’ve got simple multitasking covered. In the example of responding to emails whilst driving where two tasks of low complexity are being performed at the same time, we unfortunately have the worst kind of evidence in the ways of road traffic accident to demonstrate that we have not evolved to perform any combination of non simple task competently and reliably.

In truth when we dig into the details we find that it’s not multitasking that is taking place it, it is actually task switching, really fast task switching exemplified by the microsecond it takes for the eyes to dart from the phone screen to the windscreen.

Multitasking is a misleading term,  The correct term is task switching and it comes at a high cost perhaps the highest cost….time. it’s estimated that it takes between 15 to 30 minutes to switch between tasks of even moderate complexity. With the numerous requirements to switch tasks during the average project day it could be asserted that anything from two to three hours a day can be lost.

Individual Task Switching

To demonstrate the negative impact of multitasking, the University of Michigan conducted an experiment involving a group of people switching between tasks including solving mathematical equations and pinpointing geometrical forms.

The findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance which highlighted two principles on which the brain relies during task-switching, namely rule activation and changing your objective/ aim. 

While changing your aim by deciding I want to do this and not that, rule activation involves your canceling one set of rules to allow for a different set of rules to take over (I’m canceling this set of rules for that and activating these rules for this).

What the Michigan University researchers proved was that switching between tasks resulted in increased time lost which grew proportionally with the complexity of the tasks involved. Also, people who tried to resolve a series of tests simultaneously were more prone to being distracted and couldn’t focus compared to people who just completed one test at a time.

A separate study performed by the University of Sussex shows that switching between tasks can have a negative impact on cognitive functions and reduce the density of the brain which leads to low focus abilities and short attention spans.

How To Minimise Task Switching?

The simple act of commiting to complete a task before beginning another can lead to a non trivial increase in efficiency and productivity. Easier said than done, there are a multitude of factors that collude to prevent this. Below are listed some methods that will address some of these factors, as simple as they may appear they are effective.

– When working on any task, phones should be switched off, or in airplane mode email notifications should also be off;

– The only activity during a conference call should be note taking preferably on paper, if using a digital option then all other applications should be closed;

– Solutionizing e.g. designing a new process workflow, should be carried out with pen and paper first before transferring or replicating electronically.

Organizational Task Switching

Although researchers have proven that multitasking at an individual level can decrease productivity by 40%, not much attention to organizational multitasking and the productivity decrease resulting from overwhelming employees/ teams with multiple tasks/ projects at once.

From the findings of the research done on individuals it would not be too much of a reach to propose that within a business especially larger businesses this productivity degradation will be compounded perhaps exponentially. At the enterprise level it’s possible to observe some of the following:

– The Spread, is perhaps the most visible causes of task switching, it occurs when multiple projects are assigned to multiple consultants and resources in an overlapping manner; Tom, Richard and Sally are all working on Project A. Tom is also working on Project B, with two other colleagues, Richard is working on Project C and D, and Sally is working on Project E and F. additional complexity is usually added by requiring the resources to perform different functions on each project.

Prioritization Flux, continuous changes in priorities across project are direct causes of task switching.

– Interruptions, In the new age of open office space, emails, instant messages, and real time notification on multiple devices it is incredible difficult to avoid distractions and interruptions. Consultants working in an environment where interruptions can be had easily will be losing a significant portion of the working day (up to three hours) and of the remaining hours the quality of the work would be negatively impacted.

Positive effects of reducing organizational Task Switching

To study the effects of multitasking at the enterprise level, Realization (a Project Management SaaS provider) examined companies with an average annual turnover of 1 Bl from different industries including aviation, aerospace and defense, automotive, energy, pharmaceuticals and software which were using different processes to minimize the negative impact of multitasking at the organizational level.

Through a comparison made between the number of projects completed and time it took to finish each project before and after reducing organizational multitasking, Realization discovered that the studied companies had a project throughput increase of 60% and average cycle time decrease of around 30%.

Companies also showed a productivity increase of about 38%, which is quite significant considering that the annual worldwide expenditure on projects reaches $5.8 trillion.

An interesting way of illustrating the significance of the total worldwide losses caused by organizational multitasking is to combine the 27.75% decrease in productivity indicated by Realization’s study and the 32% labor contribution to project costs. Extrapolate the results to worldwide level and an approximate figure of $450 bln loss is arrived at.

Ways to Minimize Organizational Task Switching?

– Cutting down the number of open work streams by about 50%. Fewer projects running in parallel involve fewer tasks and enable task-prioritization which can lead to doubling project completion rates. Executives can also become more responsive because they’re dealing with fewer matters at once;

– Prioritizing tasks. Investing the necessary time to prioritize tasks properly will result in fewer priority changes and consequently less interruption in individuals workflows.

Batch regularly recurring tasks. Tasks that are repeated on an hourly,  daily or weekly basis should be batched. e.g. emails should be read and responded to two or three times a day, daily stand up meetings should be followed immediately with any other related project meetings planned for the same day, instead of several meetings darted around the same day.

The end of task switching

The current state of affairs around the way individuals and teams “multi task” and task switch is bittersweet, in one hand there is the fact that a lot of the stress attributed to project life is unnecessary, and on the other hand it’s encouraging to note that with some simple changes on the individuals side and slightly less simple changes on the business side a lot more productivity.

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