As managers, we spend too much of our day trying to fit more work into less time. A common response for overworked professionals at all levels is to attempt to multitask by performing multiple activities at the same time. The problem is that multitasking doesn't work.
Why Multitasking Isn't the Most Effective Approach
For example, imagine that as you brush your teeth in the morning, you start thinking about the agenda for a big meeting later in the day. It doesn't take much of your brain's processing power to brush your teeth, and you might be able to concentrate on the agenda while mechanically handling your morning teeth cleaning task.
But what about two tasks that require more of your brain's capacity? You might be talking on the phone while you're preparing breakfast. You may get both tasks done correctly, but the opportunity for mistakes due to lapses in attention is large.
Chunking as an Alternative to Multitasking
"Chunking" describes how human memory utilization works. It is important to remember this concept as we look at completing several tasks simultaneously. We are, in fact, switching between them rather than doing them at the same time (although, in the case of brushing your teeth, it may seem like they are simultaneous).
Imagine you are on the phone when someone walks into your office. They ask for your advice or a quick decision on an issue. You stop listening to the person on the phone briefly, scan the note in front of you, scribble a response, and go back to the phone call. You did not do the two activities (phone call and in-person conversation) at the same time.
You actually did three tasks in sequence: started the phone call, had the in-person conversation, and then resumed the phone call. Just as in the breakfast example above, you could have gotten both of them done better, and in less total time, if you had done them one after the other instead of at the same time. The reason is that as you begin each task, you have to focus on it and get started.
The Ineffective Start-Up Time of Multitasking
When you started the phone call, you had to think about it, find the phone number, and make the call. When you were interrupted, you had to figure out what the person wanted from you to be able to give them a decision. Finally, when you resumed the phone call, you had to remember where you left off. You might even have had to say, "Oops, sorry, someone walked in. What were you saying?"
The more starts and stops you make during the day, the more of these time-consuming start-up moments you have. These moments are non-productive time. If you have a daily report to prepare, the start-up moment is probably pretty short compared to that for the report you only do quarterly. Still, if you are preparing that report and you get interrupted, you have almost the same length of time for start-up each time.
Let's say, for example, you can write a report in 30 minutes without any interruptions. However, it can take several hours if unplanned tasks and interruptions pop up throughout the day. This substantial delay often doesn't come so much from the actual interruptions as the time it takes to restart the report over and over again.
Why You Should Try Chunking
OK, sometimes you have to multitask. Your job may be operational, so what is better than multitasking? Chunking is better for productivity.
Chunking is the concept of breaking up your day into larger chunks instead of reacting to constant interruptions. The more chunks of time you can devote to specific tasks, the fewer start-up moments you will have, and your efficiency improves commensurately. Since you won't be spending as much time in start-up moments, you will have more time, and you will get more done. As a bonus, since you will be able to focus on the single task at hand, you will do it better.
As a sidebar, project managers long ago figured out the power of this technique and created their own version of "chunking" via the work breakdown structure process.
How to Get Started With Chunking at Work
So, how can you start chunking?
- Start small until you get the feel of it. Pick a single task, perhaps your weekly report.
- Set aside the 30 minutes you know it will take.
- Close your door or put up a sign that reads "Genius at work" or something like that and then concentrates on the report and nothing but the report.
- Ignore the phone.
- Don't check email.
- Just write the report.
Attempt the same with phone calls, employee meetings, and other regular activities. Focus, chunk your days out, and after a few weeks of practice, you will feel and be more efficient.
The Bottom Line
Don't waste so much of your time trying to multitask. Instead, make yourself more efficient and more productive by chunking. While the term is awkward, the concept is effective.
Updated by Art Petty