Don't Multitask – Multithink Instead

by Jeffrey Baumgartner

Don't Multitask - Multithink InsteadI expect you are familiar with multitasking: the ability to perform more than one task simultaneously. Managers who like to overwork their employees love multitasking. They assume that if their employees are performing three tasks simultaneously, they’ll work three times as fast.

The logic in that assumption is so thoroughly flawed, it is hard to believe that intelligent managers accept it without question. Perhaps they are too desperate to improve employee productivity.

Logic suggests two points:

1. No one can actually perform several tasks simultaneously. Rather they quickly switch from one task to the other. Hence, all things being equal, multitasking should be no faster than monotasking (that’s my own word, incidentally).

2. Bearing in mind point 1, it would seem that a person would require a certain amount of time to switch from one task to the other. Even if that time is tiny, it would add up after numerous switches from task to task. This would suggest that multitasking is actually slower than monotasking.

As it turns out an even more reputable source than me confirms the above two points. In a paper published by the American Psychological Association: “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching”, authors Joshua S. Rubinstein, David E. Meyer and Jeffrey E. Evans confirm what logic tells us. You can download the paper as a PDF or read the press release.

Although multitasking turns out to be counter-productive, multithinking (another word of mine!) is a different matter all together. Multithinking is thinking about completely different issues or tasks at the same time.

Whether you multitask or not, you almost certainly have numerous tasks awaiting your attention at any given time. And it is inevitable that your mind occasionally turns to one task while you are working on another. A multitasker would be inclined to switch tasks at this point. I recommend you stick to the task at hand, but keep a notebook – or at least some paper – nearby when performing any tasks. (Indeed, if you’ve been reading Report 103 for any length of time, you will know that I recommend having a notebook with you all the time). When the mind turns from the task at hand to another task, simply note down your thoughts in the notebook. Then return to the task at hand.

This simple action does several things at once. Firstly, It allows you to maintain your focus on the task at hand. By making a note of your thought, you are clearing your mind of the distracting idea. This can only improve your focus on the task at hand.

Secondly, when the action of performing task A inspires an idea relevant to task B, it is very often the case that the idea is a creative one that would not have come to mind had we been focusing on task B. In other words, multithinking often inspires creative ideas.

Thirdly, if performing task A provides inspirations for task B, you may come across synergies between the two tasks; synergies which reduce your overall workload – and actually improve your productivity. Such synergies are best discovered through multithinking. Indeed, when ideas come to mind. Do not simply write them down. Try to draw links between your ideas for task B and task A.

Frankly, one of the best places to multithink is during long, crowded meetings. During many such meetings, I have filled pages of my notebook on ideas relevant to other tasks – and have still followed the flow of the meeting.

On the other hand, even as I write this, I have one notebook on my desk and another electronic one open on my computer – and I am slowly filling them both up.

So remember. If you want to be more creatively productive. Don’t multitask. Multithink!

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Jeffrey BaumgartnerJeffrey Baumgartner is the founder of jpb.com, makers of Jenni innovation process management software. He also edits Report 103, a popular eJournal on business innovation. Contact Jeffrey at jeffreyb@jpb.com or visit https://www.jpb.com/

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  1. Jeff, this is a great piece. I’m totally stealing your term “multi-thinking.” (Don’t worry, I always acknowledge my sources!)

    The ineffectiveness of multi-tasking is a concept we hammer-home to the students in our internship program (https://bit.ly/frOwwo). Naturally it’s an uphill battle when professors and parents are saying “well you’ll just have to find a way to multi-task”. I’ll reference this post as one of the many sources that support my case.

  2. Here’s my only slightly egotistical suggestion for how to implement this multithinking: https://bit.ly/aQKLmZ.

  3. I have read the studies that say that multitasking is less efficient than focusing on one task as you have repeated here. However, I think they are measuring the wrong thing. When a person is doing multiple tasks simultaneously the brain has the ability leak from one task to another. In other words the work I am doing on one tasks will influence the work I am doing on another task – so I therefore have the ability to create new content, new tasks, new connections. This is not being measured, just how many beans can I count, not how many new vegetables can I create!

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