Why Multi-tasking is a Trap and How to Break Out Of It

Why multi-tasking is a trap and how to break out of it

Multi-tasking is a trap. I am convinced of it. For a long time, we glamorized multi-tasking. We put it on a pedestal as a business virtue to be proud of. Many people still do. But I have come to learn over the years that while multi-tasking can masquerade as an effective approach to management, in reality it does not scale.

One common trait I’ve observed in all the teams I’ve managed is a natural inclination to take on too many parallel projects. It seems to be a fundamental challenge faced by all complex teams and multi departmental companies. I see it on smaller teams too. You may be able to get by for a while as a multi-tasker or by running a multi-tasking team, but it has rapidly diminishing returns in my experience.

You don’t have to work for very long in a corporate setting to see how many different activities and projects are being pursued at any given time. Many of which have little or no impact of significance on the most important outcomes the company is trying to affect. How many projects have you seen recently at your company that never got finished? How many were partially executed but had muted results? How many activities are you asked to support that just seem so disconnected from what the company is really trying to achieve? I see this everywhere and I spend a great deal of time and energy trying to fight against it.

When I look back at the most successful leaders I’ve worked with, most of them were obsessive about finishing things. They were myopically focused. They seemed to have a unique ability to focus in on one thing while chaos surrounded them. They seemed immune to the volume of requests and input that sought to distract them from their most important priorities. Early in my career I wondered from afar if this was a weakness. I know now, with the benefit of experience, that it was a strength.

This lesson has had bearing both on how I manage my career and on how I manage teams. In my career, I force myself to stay absolutely focused on pursuing big wins … one at a time. I really don’t do anything else. This level of focus, to be fair, comes at a small cost I’m willing to pay. I’m really bad about checking email. I decline meetings all the time. I block off huge chunks of my calendar every week. I frequently let lower priority tasks dwindle and dither and die. It’s a calculated price I’m happy to pay in order to pursue the big, measurable wins I think will have the biggest impact on the company and my career.

I use the same approach in managing my team. I try to help them dramatically reduce the number of activities they pursue at any given time. In my experience the 80-20 rule applies well to teams. Ask yourself, what projects did you work on last year that were mentioned in your annual performance review this year? What moments do you think your boss really remembers? What initiatives did you participate in that made a big impact on the most important objectives your company is pursuing? Now ask yourself, what else did you work on? How many activities did you perform that no one will remember? How many meetings did you attend that amounted to nothing?

If you’re anything like me, you can probably point to just a few projects that were truly transformational for the team and a ton of other stuff that if viewed objectively, only served to distract you. My goal as a manager is to cut as much of that out as I possibly can. In many ways, this is the single biggest piece of value I can offer my team:  The freedom to focus. The time to focus. The pursuit of focus can actually be a pretty scary thing for a team. Focusing on one thing means not focusing on other things and that comes at a price. Saying no to people and projects is hard. Saying yes is much easier. My job as a manager is to make it easier to focus, to reward and support it.

In my experience, the “one thing at a time” mentality, even when applied to multi-functional teams, is the best approach for actually executing high quality initiatives from start to finish. When it comes to actually delivering big things, with quality, I have found no better approach. The other option, the one I observe to be rampant in corporate life, is to pursue many activities in parallel. My experience tells me this results, more often than not, in a bunch of moderately successful or half-finished projects, many of which are disconnected from the top priorities of the business.

Teams are healthiest and happiest when they have a clear purpose and the autonomy to pursue that purpose creatively. There is extensive research by Kenneth Thomas and others to support this contention. When your team is managing too many projects simultaneously, that clarity of purpose is obscured. They no longer have the time to put their full energy into pursuing anything. Quality suffers. Engagement suffers.

My advice to managers and career minded individuals is to start focusing on fewer activities. Start trying to rally your team around one big thing at a time. The volume based approach doesn’t work. Finish projects. Work them obsessively until they are done with quality. Don’t allow the inevitable noise and pressure to distract you. Even if you manage a team of 20 or 40 or more, you can do this. Focus, at this level, will lead to higher impact programs, happier staff, and bigger wins for the business and for your career.

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