A few years ago the word multitasking was almost synonymous with productivity.  You couldn’t open a magazine, read a book, or watch a newscast where someone wasn’t being highly efficient by multitasking several jobs at once.

Then the ivory tower came crashing down.  Productivity studies came out showing how multitasking did not work.  It destroyed productivity.  It made you less creative.  It produced inferior work.  The new mantra became,  “To be productive, focus exclusively on one thing and give it your all.”

It will probably be another few years before the world shifts and a new mantra begins.

However, I think I can save you the long wait.  It’s what you always suspected was really true.  And, if you  adopt it right now, you can be ahead of the curve.  You can impress all your friends.  You can get more done in less time.  In fact, you might save a lot of cash.  You can skip buying a whole new collection of productivity books.

I give you the next big thing in productivity…

Balanced multitasking.

You heard it here first folks!

What is balanced multitasking?  It is simply applying a bit of common sense to see if the quality of what you are doing requires your undivided attention.  If not, then multitasking the job, no matter what it is, will yield a bonus of saved time.

Let’s take a really simple example.

I have some laundry to wash, but I also need to bake a pie.  A quick examination of the two tasks reveals that neither one of them requires my complete attention.  It will take me some time to sort the laundry, but once it is in the washing machine I don’t need to sit and wait for it to complete.  I can go make the pie.  And while the pie is baking I don’t need to hover over the stove to watch it cook.  I can move the laundry out of the washer and into the dryer.

Seems obvious doesn’t it?

There are some tasks that only require part of our attention to accomplish with the exact same benefits as if we gave them our undivided attention.

Let’s look at another example.  I have a TV show I want to watch.  I also have a bunch of papers I need to sort.   While it might take me a few moments longer to sort through the papers if I combine sorting with watching the TV show, the net gain will be much larger than if I watched the show and then sorted the papers.

There is a catch here, but it is a simple one.  Not all tasks can be balanced.  If a task’s quality is important, you should not multitask it.  In both our examples there will be no real penalty for multitasking.  However, if the papers were medical records and you were checking prescription amounts, the whole picture changes.  Here a mistake could be disastrous.  You need uninterrupted focus.

So, how can you bring balanced multitasking back into your life?  It’s very simple.  Ask yourself these easy questions.

  1. In order to accomplish this task does it require my undivided attention?

If it does not,  it is a candidate for multitasking.  How do you determine if your undivided attention is required?  Measure the quality of what you would get with, and without, undivided attention.  In the first case, neither the quality of the pie, nor the quality or the laundry would be compromised if I did both tasks together.  In the second case, the quality of the TV show will not be impacted by my sorting papers, nor will the sorted papers quality be impacted by my watching TV.  It is reasonable to expect it will take longer to sort the papers, but unless the papers have to be sorted in a fixed amount of time the result of multitasking is only a net gain of time saved.

  1. Is there another task that I can share time with, that is a good fit?

In our first example, I was doing laundry and baking a pie.  Consider the difference if one of the tasks was driving my aunt across town.  While the laundry can share time with my little cross town jaunt, the same is not true of the pie.  Why?  Because, I cannot say with certainty that I will return at a fixed time.  Traffic can impede me.  I could hit a red light.  I could encounter a traffic accident.  I might get diverted by construction.  Now, let’s check our tasks.  In the case of the laundry, what would happen?  The washer would finish its spin cycle and would sit there.  If I was delayed it would cause no damage to the quality of the project.  It would simply take longer to get to the dryer.  A delay of hours might make a difference but getting stuck for an additional fifteen minutes on the expressway will not ruin the laundry.

However, the pie is a different story.  Being late to get the pie out of the oven could be a disaster.

In our second example, watching the TV show is affected strongly by delays.  Your ability to watch the show would be impacted severely by driving your aunt.  In fact, you could not do it.  The papers would be interrupted, but unaffected.  The number of papers you sorted before you drove your aunt would remain sorted, the rest would still be waiting when you returned.   But, here the two tasks prove to be exclusive.  You cannot drive the car and sort the papers – there is no multitasking possible.  (I’ll save you an auto accident by assuming you would not try to drive and sort the papers in the car.)

So, in only one of the cases would driving the car allow multitasking.  The others are not a good fit.

  1. If there would be a quality loss in combining tasks, is the quality loss acceptable?

Most people who focus on productivity are adamant about the quality of the work you produce.  They would like you to believe that unless you are doing your absolute best at all times a task is not worth doing.  However, these same individuals will then tell you that you should be doing your most creative work in the morning when your mind is fresh!

The fact is, the quality of your work typically deteriorates throughout the day – no matter what you do.  Productivity experts want you to arrange your tasks to allow for a diminishing energy level and a corresponding loss of focus.  So, would the quality of two multitasked items earlier in the day be any better (or worse) than the two items done separately late in the day?

Clearly for the tasks that are important to you, for the tasks on which quality is paramount, the tasks that take you in the direction you want your life to go, and tasks where timeliness is a factor, focusing on the task exclusively is the way to go.

In fact, as a general rule, if others are going to see and judge you based on the quality and speed of your work, focusing on the task exclusively is the way to go.

Put all the quality you can into those things you do.  Focusing on a single task allows you to do that.

However, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  There are plenty of places where multitasking is not only useful, it is the correct choice.

You cannot get back one minute, one second, of your life.  So consider carefully how you invest those minutes and seconds.  Single tasking an unimportant chore that could be multi-tasked is a waste of the most precious resource you have – your time.

And that’s a mistake you can’t get back.

David Dougher – author, ballroom dance instructor, computer consultant, game designer, and odd fellow.
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