The Multitasking Myth – Part 2

Sabine Pfleger, Thursday 30 January 2014 | Reading time: unknown

Multitasking - Part 2


Multitasking in project teams is not desirable, because it is not efficient. That was the core statement of the last post. Switching from task to task means that there are always switch costs which can amount up to 40 percent of the daily work time on an average work day. That means that almost half of the work time might be used to get back to the original task after being interrupted.

That’s why reducing multitasking to a minimum and creating spaces for uninterrupted, concentrated work should be in everyone’s interest.

There are starting points on all levels – in the organization itself, the management team and in the self-organization of each team member.

Reduce distractions

The most efficient way of working on a project is to allocate one team member only to one project. Therefore, it might be necessary to avoid working on projects simultaneously, but to work on one project after the other. Ideally, the people in charge should treat the prioritization of projects as an executive function. Statements such as “In our company, everything is urgent and important”, are a sign of bad management, rather than of the utter relevance of each and every project.

For quite some time, big and open shared offices were perceived as the modern solution for a communicative and transparent corporate culture. Only recently, managers have started to rethink the idea of open-plan offices and their harming side effects in terms of health and productivity. According to a study of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences, staff in open-plan offices are distracted more often and they are on sick leave more often. The number of sick days increases in proportion to the number of people who share an office, state the researchers. (Source)

Therefore, the management has to make a decision whether big open-plan offices really are the most efficient way to design a workplace.

Create retreats

It is also possible to establish rules on an organizational, departmental or team level to avoid that concentrated work is permanently interrupted. Team members might agree upon the fact that an open door is a signal that it is a good time for communication and coordination, whereas a closed door means that the team inside the office doesn’t want to be disturbed at the moment.

Another option is to define fixed time slots for “silent hours” and “consultation hours”, which are blocked in the calendar. It is great for team members if they can book rooms where they can focus on tasks and must not be disturbed. A fallback solution might be that team members can book meeting rooms for an hour or two of uninterrupted work.

Self-organization and self-discipline

The team members can also do a lot to help their concentration. It takes, however, a bit of self-organization and self-discipline. The psychologist Andreas Zimber of the Heidelberg University of Applied Sciences recommends to close off oneself rigorously during the phases of concentration. Usually, colleagues are willing to accept if someone closes his or her e-mail account for a while, switches on the answering machine and closes the door. So, they can avoid that there are three or four channels of information open at the same time. (Source)

Especially freelancers and team member working from home sometimes have difficulties to resist non-work distractions. Browsing the internet in particular can be a true time sink. Some little tricks, however, help team members to stay focused. Today, there are many little technical helpers to close off the workplace for a while. With Stay Focused, for example, you can limit the time spent surfing on the Internet-browser Chrome. Freedom switches off the access to the Internet for the desired amount of time. Sometimes, it can be enough to take a little note on where you stopped your work at the end of the day and what you want to do first thing next morning.

But no matter whether you work with online tools or little notes on your desk – without some self-discipline, focusing on work is not possible, because there will always be a way to circumvent your own rules.  

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