In order to be effective in their roles, project managers must wear many hats and perform many different tasks as they guide a project toward its completion. Between ongoing communication with team members and key stakeholders, issue identification and resolution, budgeting, task management, team-building, and ensuring that projects hit key milestones, there are dozens of vital responsibilities that fall to project managers.
This can lead many project managers (and those who find themselves unofficially in a project management role) to believe that they must multitask in order to be productive.
Research shows, however that multitasking doesn’t actually make us more productive; in fact, it can actually hinder our ability to get the job done effectively. A study by The American Psychological Association (APA), for example, found that switching between different tasks can cause a 40 percent loss in productivity.
Yet considering how integral the practice of multitasking has become in the work of project managers, this type of negative data is rarely enough to discourage this behavior. For this reason, educators in advanced project management programs have taken to directly addressing this issue in the classroom.
“I often cover multitasking in my lectures,” says Joe Griffin, Associate Vice President of Business Development and associate teaching professor in the Master of Science in Project Management program at Northeastern. “[Students often mistakenly] think it’s a great idea, and even go so far as to brag about it on their resumés and in interviews. Newsflash: Multitasking is probably productivity’s biggest enemy. It doesn’t make us more efficient. It simply splits our time.”
Read on to explore the ways in which multitasking can have a negative impact on project management—and business in general—and uncover some tips that you can use to avoid the practice in your work.
4 Ways Multitasking Decreases Productivity
1. Our brains aren’t wired for it.
There’s a common saying that goes along the lines of, “the human brain is more powerful than any computer ever created.” While there is much to be said about human ingenuity and creativity, there is one aspect in which computers will likely always have us beat: Their ability to multitask.
While a modern computer can process hundreds, if not thousands, of separate inputs all at the same time, the human brain is wired differently. Instead of unlimited processing units, we’ve got two hemispheres which, research suggests, perform best when focused on one or, at most, two tasks.
“In general, humans are unable to switch from one item to another without losing focus, losing attention, and losing productivity,” Griffin says, describing how, in short, “multitasking hampers our ability to think critically.”
Exactly how much productivity can multitasking cost us? Research suggests that multitasking can disrupt short-term memory, decrease creativity, and even lower your IQ, all of which can severely impact your job performance and career advancement.
“Need proof? Just envision yourself trying to complete a homework assignment while also getting texts from your spouse, browsing Facebook, and responding to emails,” Griffin challenges. “Pretty bad, right?”
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2. It doesn’t make mathematical sense.
No matter how we structure our time—whether we follow scrum, sprints, agile, or any other kind of project management methodology—there are still only 24 hours in a day. Mathematically speaking, multitasking in and of itself cannot help us complete our tasks any faster, because multitasking does not increase the amount of time that we have to work on those tasks.
To illustrate this point, Griffin offers an example to consider: If you have three tasks, and each task will take you three full days of work to complete, then in total you have nine days of work. An individual who chooses to multitask and work on all three tasks at the same time does not magically become more productive than the person who works on the tasks one by one, because the same amount of work has to happen in the same period of time.
In this example, Griffin explains that when multitasking and working on all three projects at once, it’s possible that, by the end of Day nine, you will be able to deliver three completed tasks. But had you simply focused on one task at a time, you could have crossed full tasks off of your list throughout the week, providing value along the way.
3. Staggered deadlines make work take longer.
Though it might go against commonly held beliefs, staggered deadlines (a staple of many projects) can actually be detrimental to productivity, due to a concept known as Parkinson’s Law.
Taken from an essay penned by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in 1955, Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” This, according to Griffin, explains why, if we have a week to complete a project, chances are high that most of us will begin working on it at the last possible minute in which we can still safely deliver it.
Staggered deadlines are often necessary for projects in which multiple tasks or goals are pursued at the same time. However, as research has shown, they can also lead to a decrease in productivity due to both procrastination and the need for increased effort when less effort would have been perfectly acceptable.
On the other hand, you were to work from a start date on one project at a time, you’d most likely increase productivity, a concept Griffin outlines in the example below:
“I used to work in construction, [and] instead of telling a painter I wanted a house finished by April 1, I’d tell him I wanted him to begin painting on March 15 and work until the job was done. I knew the job only took five days. Presto, [he’d be] done on March 20, and I’d rescued 10 days from being wasted in my schedule.”
4. It encourages us to prioritize urgency over importance and impact.
Not all projects and tasks are created equally. Some might have the potential to be incredibly important or impactful, but have no urgency behind them. Others might be incredibly urgent, but are not very important or impactful in the grand scheme of things. No matter the situation, balancing these realities is a significant part of the project manager’s job.
While one might assume that we innately can tell the difference between these two kinds of tasks and prioritize impact over mere urgency, it turns out that the opposite is often true. In many scenarios, we allow urgency to win out over impact, especially at times when workers feel overwhelmed by the amount on their plate—an issue most often faced when multitasking.
“Good project managers set clear expectations about what work should take priority,” Griffin says. “And in the absence of a good project manager, it’s up to you to understand that not all work is equally important. That’s why it’s important to focus on one project at a time.”
How to Avoid Multitasking
While the negative aspects of this practice might seem obvious given this additional context and research, the truth is that multitasking can be difficult to avoid. However, there are steps that you can take to reduce how often you find yourself multitasking, and, in doing so, become a more productive member of your organization.
- Create a “keystone habit” in your life: Keystone habits are habits that help us reorder our lives, often assisting in anchoring our time, organizing our days, and staying disciplined and focused. Structured exercise, volunteering, schoolwork, and even socializing can all be great examples of keystone habits that can help us stay focused on our work, and, indirectly, prevent us from falling into a multitasking trap.
- Think of life in terms of “shifts”: For most of us, our days are split roughly into three shifts: there’s a work shift, a family/personal time shift, and a sleep shift. Griffin suggests identifying which shift is most productive for you, and which you have the most time and energy during. Once you have identified it, take the necessary steps to ensure you can complete your keystone habit during that specific shift. Optimizing your tasks and anchoring your time in this way will keep you productive and less prone to multitasking, both then and throughout the day.
- Identify needless tasks and work to eliminate them: By sitting down and inspecting the different tasks that you are responsible for completing, it is very possible that you will identify which don’t have a substantial impact and, simultaneously, which can be off-loaded to someone else—or possibly even to automated by technology. Eliminating the tasks which do not play into your strengths or which do not put your time to its best use can allow you to create more value elsewhere, and can be an efficient way to reduce the temptation to multitask.
- Cut down on interruptions across the board: Multitasking doesn’t simply mean jumping between competing tasks. It can refer to anything that forces us to split our attention, including unexpected interruptions like phone calls, emails, texts, breaking news alerts, and surprise visitors to your office. By actively taking measures to reduce these interruptions—by muting email notifications while handling an important task, for example—you can not only help improve focus but also boost your overall efficiency moving forward.
Project management is a demanding yet fulfilling career. Explore our Master of Science in Project Management program page today and learn about the variety of project management methodologies, practical tactics, and skills you can gain exposure to with an advanced degree from Northeastern.
This article was originally published in March 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.