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Multi-tasking Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

Multi-tasking Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

    Multi-tasking; it seems that people are going to have big debates about this topic until the end of time.

    Recently, a book came out that claimed to “bust” the multi-tasking myth – as many authors have done over the decades. It’s nothing new. And the blog posts that spring up saying nothing but, “this is nothing new,” are nothing new either.

    Let’s get a little perspective here. I think in most situations where some pocket of humanity is forming an opinion, we have a truth that is somewhere in the middle, and then two extreme, polarized opinions based on opposite sides of that less extreme reality. People cling to polarized opinions even when the truth has been proven right in front of their eyes.

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    Multi-tasking (or switch-tasking as the new buzz word goes) is usually a bad idea. No doubt about that, but the keyword is usually.

    Because on the contrary, multi-tasking can be a useful way to make the most of time that would have otherwise been used inefficiently. It’s about making the most out of time, when it’s a good idea to do so. But how do you determine when it’s a good idea to multi-task?

    Only Two Activities at Once

    If you’re going to multi-task, then only attempt to tackle two activities at once. If 95% of the time you can only focus on one task effectively, that remaining 5% of the time, you can only handle two tasks at once without reducing the effectiveness of each task to a point where there’s little point in doing anything at all.

    Imagine trying to cook, talk on the phone, and read a book. You could sure manage to cook and talk on the phone at the same time, but all three at once isn’t going to work. Our ability to perform tasks adequately hits its maximum at two, and that’s an upper maximum at that.

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    Of course, we can’t just multi-task any two activities, or I’d be writing two articles right now.

    Levels of Concentration

    There are two main types of task: those that require concentration, and those that can be done on autopilot.

    As a rule, you can’t truly multi-task unless one of the two tasks at hand is one you do on autopilot, such as washing the dishes.

    There are varying degrees of concentration requirement, too – listening to an audiobook while doing the dishes is easy because we have one task that’s easily done on autopilot with one task that requires concentration, but only concentration on incoming information. There’s no generation of outgoing information, so it’s easy and time efficient to multi-task.

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    When there’s a task that requires creating output, such as dictating a diary or brainstorming ideas into a tape recorder while doing the dishes, it needs to be fairly stream-of-consciousness or free-flowing. To work on something structured, high-level, or strategic requires total concentration.

    The Best Reason to Say No to Multi-tasking

    The best reason to say no to multi-tasking is not because it doesn’t work or it doesn’t exist. The true statement there is that it usually doesn’t exist.

    The best reason to say no to multi-tasking is because it is a crutch. It is a gateway to low-resistance activities that allow us to procrastinate when we should be working on higher-yield activities that require more intensive thought.

    It’s much easier to check email while reading RSS feeds than it is to write an article or plan a marketing campaign, so we resort to those easier activities that don’t require us to push past the resistance.

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    Multi-tasking does a great job of covering up the fact that we’re doing nothing, and we even fool ourselves with it. But unless you know that at the end of the day your current activities are going to have advanced your project or goals, you’re wasting your time out of fear of tackling those goals.

    If this is you, avoid multi-tasking. Think of it as a scourge; it’s the closest thing to a gateway drug to procrastination to you.

    One Question to Rule Them All

    At the end of the day, it would be stupid to suggest you need to measure the concentration level of a task and add one tablespoon of autopilot activities to create a multi-tasking mix. It needs to be an easy question you ask yourself, to which I hope the answer is usually in the negative or you’re spending all your time on low-yield activities as we just discussed.

    Understanding how multi-tasking works and more importantly, how it doesn’t work, is essential to answering this question honestly for yourself, though. But it’s a simple question:

    Can I give both activities the attention they deserve and perform at an adequate level?

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    The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

    The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

    It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

    Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

    “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

    In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

    New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

    There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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    So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

    What is the productivity paradox?

    There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

    In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

    He wrote in his conclusion:

    “Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

    Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

    How do we measure productivity anyway?

    And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

    In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

    But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

    In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

    But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

    Possible causes of the productivity paradox

    Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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    • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
    • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
    • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
    • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

    There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

    According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

    Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

    The paradox and the recession

    The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

    “Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

    This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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    According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

    Looking forward

    A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

    “Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

    Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

    “Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

    On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

    Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

    Reference

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