Great Multi-Taskers Make Poor Leaders

Posted on April 30, 2007. Filed under: Interesting Links, Leadership, Quotes |

Recently, a NY times article came out extolling the virtues of “mono-tasking”. Much of the research available touts multi-tasking as an endeavor of diminishing returns. So called multi-tasking is actually a misnomer as far as brain function is concerned. The human brain is designed to only process so much information at a time. Essentially, the more tasks you perform concurrently, the more your focus is divided. It is that lack of focus that actually hampers productivity and can produce an inferior quality of work.

How does this relate to leadership? That’s an excellent question, and I’m glad I asked it. How can a leader ask his staff to ramp up productivity when he himself is mired down in the minutiae of every day tasks? A leader’s job is to keep his mind on the big picture, and attend to the details that will paint that picture. If he is too busy answering emails while talking on the phone and IM’ing, he can’t focus on that major project or improving the output of his staff. He can’t focus period. Technology is great and has increased productivity exponentially. But what if that technology becomes a constant distraction to your task at hand? The expression “drinking from a fire hose” springs to mind.

As a country, we are facing information overload. As an engineer, it gets tough to work on a particular design or a lengthy calculation when my phone won’t stop ringing, my email program won’t stop alerting me, and my coworkers won’t stop dropping by to “shoot the bull”. Worse yet, it takes time to get refocused on a complex problem after each distraction. The result–productivity plummets.

A recent Microsoft study of their own employees found that it took the average employee 15 minutes to get refocused on serious mental tasks after a distraction (i.e. report writing, computer programming). That’s right. 15 minutes! You get distracted 4 times while working on a focus intensive task and you just lost over an hour of time in your day. Now who wants to stay late because your buddy at work wants to talk about the NFL draft for 10 minutes? Sure it’s interesting, but wouldn’t you rather talk about it over a beer after work?

Given what I have learned, I’m going to do some self evaluation and re-prioritizing. It’s time to take some steps to reduce the distraction.

Parkinson’s Law states: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”

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