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The Multitasking Myth

John Federico

Have you ever seen a job description that listed a requirement like "Must be able to multi-task many large projects"? Think about it: do you really want someone multi-tasking on "many" large and important projects? I think not.

Multi-tasking began as a product of the great "Downsize Yourself to Success" movement that occurred during the late 80's and early 90's as companies attempted to remove the bloat and squeeze out a few fiscal quarters of increased profits through reduced headcount, thus making Wall Street happy.

In many cases, jobs were cut but the work wasn't so employees had to learn to "multi-task".

Today, I find it more the norm than the exception that companies will just throw all they can at their employees, expecting them to practice "Extreme Multi-tasking", almost like some sort of twisted sport.

As a consultant, many of these employees are always so "impressed" at what I can accomplish when I work with them. The truth is, it's not always about intelligence or acumen, it's about structure and focus.

My engagements are usually structured as projects with mutually agreed-upon milestones, goals and end dates. I don't take on a project if I feel I can't make an impact based on a reasonable level of effort. I'm focused on that client's needs and goals and nothing else while I'm engaged. More often than not, the results exceed expectations.

Why?

Unlike an employee, I'm not saddled with conflicting deadlines, conflicting reporting structures, politics, intrusive executives and the endless string of useless meetings to which many people are subjected. I'm not expected to practice Extreme Multi-tasking.

I have the opportunity to think, plan, think some more, interact with people, build relationships, think again, plan some more, achieve clarity and then, execute. Sure, I need to be flexible during execution: dealing with people, personalities, changing circumstances, revised goals and just plain surprises. That's fine. Having the original foundation in place enables me to be more responsive in those situations.

What I'm seeing at many companies is GO, then Think. FIRE, then Aim. And these are NOT mediocre people - these are really smart people who are being held to unreasonable expectations. In short, they're overworked.

Now, I understand that companies have to do more with less, especially during and immediately after a recession. That said, if you allow your teams to focus and be more effective, thus contributing to the bottom line, couldn't you then hire more employees to get the work done? The answer (of course) is "it depends." Every business is different. Some can hire, some can't. Of those that can, many are worried about bringing back the bloat of the beuracratic corporation.

Regardless of your company's particular situation, people need time to reflect on what they're trying to accomplish: to think, to communicate, to collaborate and to plan.

Aim, then Fire. You'll be excited by the consistency of achievements.