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Real Entrepreneurs Don’t Multitask

By on February 21, 2012

This guest post was originally published at digiogi and is reproduced here with kind permission of Steve Taylor


Photo by Ryan Ritchie

When my powerhouse (mother, wife, MD) friend Jaya Chakrabarti asked me at the beginning of this year, via this blog ,fomy top ten tips for creative entrepreneurs, some readers were a little surprised by Tip No. 5: “Stop multitasking; it’s the devil’s work”.

We are so used to being bombarded with advice from productivity gurus, downloading tools that transform our desktop or inbox into a task management hothouse or sitting through do-more webinars delivered by toned-down sociopaths disguised in Brooks Brothers suits that we are now brainwashed into thinking that the more things we can seemingly do at once, or within a ten minute window, the more squarely we are set on the road to success. Not so.

Sure, there’s a place for multitasking. The kitchen, for example. Two-thirds of the time I single-handedly run a household consisting of myself and my teenage sons, so I have adaptively developed new behaviours – I can unload a full dishwasher in exactly the time it takes for a teabag to brew, for example. Or cook risotto whilst hanging a wash on a drying rack in the next room. You get the picture.

What works in the utility room, though, doesn’t play so well in the office or studio.

The optimum mental mode for stirring a pan of flavoured rice is not so different from that which is most conducive to bagging the recycling or erecting an ironing  board. That kind of multitasking, often evoked as a defining characteristic of women – sometimes by women themselves when  pointing out the essentially unevolved nature of the male psyche – is a highly useful skill to learn, one that could potentially save a few marriages.

I suspect it is the unconscious transfer of this piece of contemporary folk wisdom into the work sphere that has led to quite a bit of manic and hopelessly ineffective behaviour by the leaders and senior managers of growing businesses.

There’s a simple exercise I’ve done with several clients – corporate and entrepreneurial – over the years. The account I offer here is a generic composite, but if you do recognise yourself in it, then I suggest another exercise – building a well-known phrase or saying around the words ‘fit’ and ‘cap’.

All I do is get the person in question, the director or MD, to write down, literally minute by minute every single thing they do, for two or three successive days. A wonk-y colleague once extrapolated this to a more scientific extreme, identifying some 160 tasks going on daily in a particular team and mapping them against a timeline for each team member. Not only did this reveal damaging levels of multitasking but it also showed that almost everyone was working on tasks that were three levels below their role and experience, most of the time. Very useful intelligence, which we subsequently used to nail down job descriptions to improve work satisfaction and productivity.

Nothing I encountered in corporate entities prepared me for the entrepreneurial sector, though.

Here, multitasking can be virtually sectionable. Tasks lasting just one or two minutes each, wildly fluctuating in focus; from a new business call to a snippet of project management to editing a newsletter entry to signing off a payment to scheduling an appraisal to fixing a software bug…It’s the mental (in both senses) equivalent of doing a triathlon by running a few metres, chucking yourself in the water, only to immediately jump out and onto a bike before pounding the road on your feet once more. Result: you don’t get very far, and your body can’t take it. Well – surprise, surprise – nor can your mind.

These behaviours are acute in growing companies for a number of reasons. There are fewer people to get things done, especially senior people who take responsibility for stuff. Staff aren’t always paid top rates, so there’s a reluctance to ask them to do apparently demeaning tasks. Not least – let’s be honest here – many entrepreneurs are control freaks, manic micro-managers, which is precisely the reason they work for themselves.

Some simple advice. Accumulate similar mental-mode tasks into ‘bundles’: project management; financial; client direction (not client management, that needs to be done in real time by people you employ); strategy; organisational development; operations and so on. Once you have two hours worth of stuff to do in a category, do it. That’s enough time to stay in the flow and capitalise on the effect of being in a consistent mental mode. We all know this already, experientially, from doing biz dev calls; we’re much more confident, articulate and effective when we set aside a morning and do one after another – we ‘get on a roll’ and our self-limiting fear of rejection and failure, the one Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance, falls away.

So save the multitasking for the kitchen, the garage – or even the bedroom. If you want to achieve maximum entrepreneurial efficiency in the workplace, leave it there where it belongs.

About Steve Taylor

  • http://twitter.com/Tenebrious Peter van der Watt

    Interesting article.

    I’m actually going to try this and see if it improves anything/everything…

  • Ted Chen

    I used to do cockpit research and the best way to crash a pilot was to give them multiple tasks that all required the same level of cognitive focus.  You can get away with doing one highly functional task and mix in some low-level mechanical ones, but mixing two high level ones tends to spell disaster.  Get an assistant or co-pilot.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    Do let us know it goes.