A Stanford study recently suggested that multi-taskers made very poor multi-taskers.
Does that not make sense?
Well, the study found that self-identified multi-taskers ended up people who were merely justifying a scattered lifestyle. Perhaps they felt productive because during a day they touched so many different tasks – but when actually tested against people who focused on one thing at a time, the multi-taskers lost and lost big.
Why was this? Well, it was the Zeigarnik Effect writ large.
Eval Ophir, one of the Stanford researchers, puts it like this in a Stanford News interview:
“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”
The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or are damaging their cognitive control by willingly taking in so much at once. But they’re convinced the minds of multitaskers are not working as well as they could.
“When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner, an associate professor of psychology. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”
The Right Environment for Success
Our environment directly impacts our ability to think. Just like our movie example, when we are overstimulated we lose focus on particular things and place it instead on the transitions between the things.
We are constantly in a state of processing change. “Now is different than a few minutes ago.” That’s an expensive transaction that we’ll cover in the context switching section.
When people talk about multi-tasking, they head for context switching first, but here let’s focus on some societal costs for multi-tasking. Let’s talk about a high multi-tasking environment and what that looks like socially.
In fact, let’s talk a little more about Eldred from yesterday’s post. Here’s Eldred’s calendar.
Project A – 10% time – Project Manager: Glenn
Project B – 15% time – Project Manager: Iggy
Project C – 25% time – Project Manager: Crazy Larry
Project D – 10% time – Project Manager: Lucy
Project E – 10% time – Project Manager: Armin
With 25% slack time, Eldred should be on easy street. If only Glenn, Iggy, Crazy Larry, Lucy, and Armin all lined up and just needed things from Eldred in succession. But with each project having project demands, we can now bet that Eldred is spending a lot of time in meetings. We can further bet that some of the meetings are unproductive status meetings so people can know where Eldred is in his work.
While Eldred is actually working, everyone working all five projects is now a tactical nuclear missile aimed directly at Eldred’s productivity. In one project, where we have a team of 10 people, there is a certain percentage of Eldred’s time that would be spent talking to team members, coordinating, and just answering questions. Now, Eldred has 5 times the team members, 5 times the bosses, 5 times the products, and 5 times the customers.
Now, I’m not going too far out on a limb and saying that time is finite. Eldred only has so many hours in the day.
These interruptions and meetings are not neatly scheduled. Eldred will be fielding questions from projects A and C at the same time. Crazy Larry will pull rank from time to time, saying that Eldred’s not giving his full 25%. The other project managers will feel like Crazy Larry’s project is getting attention at their expense. This will cause more meetings to figure out “resource utilization.”
In the end, the company will start to hire contractors or temp workers to fill the apparent short staffing needs. Yet, since Eldred is now the guy with vital information for all five projects he stays on all five projects.
Tastes Like Eldred-berry Wine
Eldred is not only overburdened, Eldred is a bottleneck. Our over-stretching Eldred has caused the slow down of all five projects. Hiring more people, just put even more pressure on the bottleneck – without addressing the root cause. Eldred has even more people to interact with now.
Again, Eldred is a Bottleneck because he is multi-tasking.
When we multi-task, we reduce our capacity. When there is an element of reduced capacity in a system, the rest of the system slows down.
In manufacturing there is a concept called “Takt Time” this is the minutes of work necessary to complete a unit of value. When we overburden Eldred, he slows down. Then, the teams he is on slow down as well. The overall takt time decreases – the project slows down. Value production slows down. Frustration mounts.
Solving Eldred’s Dilemma
This particular issue is easily solved. Take Eldred off at least two of those projects.
Does that have impacts on the rest of the company? Yes.
Does it mean that Eldred may have more slack time than we’d like? Maybe, but I doubt it. It more likely means that Eldred will be more focused on the remaining projects. Their budget may need to go up as a result, but the projects are more likely to be completed sooner and with higher quality.