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The case against multitasking

PM Oracles
June 2, 2015

“To do two things at once is to do neither”—Publilius Syrus

Picture the following scenario: you have gone into a quiet room, such as your office or den, to write a long-term program or project plan that you have been meaning to get to for several weeks. The plan requires your full concentration, and it has taken you, say, three plus weeks to get to because of short-term issues and urgent requests from others that have continually taken priority.

Today is the first day you have managed to set aside time to work on it. You are 15 minutes into your task, but you find yourself struggling to concentrate on it. Your mind wanders. Then you see an email come into your inbox on your computer and also your mobile device, which you have put on the desk in full view: both flash at you with the new message alert. Without thinking twice, you open the email, digest its contents and click Reply. Upon finishing your response, you check something loosely related to it that you were working on last week… and in the space of 20 minutes you are disconnected mentally from writing the plan you set yourself the task of completing today. Does scenario this seem all too familiar?

Take a moment to consider how much of your time at work you spend responding to ad hoc tasks while having multiple tasks in progress at once, and compare this to the time you spend on what you consider to be your most important tasks. Does the balance of what you do match up with how you want it to be?

It is arguably true that we are all faced with more and more pressures to multitask, particularly given the ease today with which we can be contacted, and with which we can contact others. Tackling several tasks in parallel can give us a feeling of high productivity (after all, it means we are achieving several things simultaneously, right?), but if we continually multitask we may end up lacking the appropriate level of focus on the ‘must do’ or important tasks we need to complete, and we may find it difficult to concentrate fully on these specific tasks when we need to.

The more tasks we undertake simultaneously, the more we increase our cognitive workload as those tasks vie for our concentration. If we get ourselves into a loop of continuous multi-tasking, we run the risk of paying continuous partial attention to the activities we undertake because we have many things milling around in our mind. In fact, the numerous switching from small task to task, then refocusing on larger tasks again can cause un-factored delays to your overall productivity.

It is true that 90% of a project manager’s job is communication, and project management requires us to wear many different hats, but we do not need to continually multitask. We wish to highlight some of the challenges of multitasking too much.

Urgent and/or important

Here are a few suggestions to consider if you are faced with the challenge of continuous multitasking:

Figure out what’s urgent and important

Before you start work each day, think about what your known ‘must do’ and important tasks are, and set yourself a goal to achieve them while accepting that you won’t always be able to do everything. Unplanned things may arise that you urgently need to respond to, or other factors may impede your progress on your target tasks causing you to refocus on others. Don’t confuse what’s important with what’s urgent, however.


As you think about your tasks, take a few minutes to analyse and categorise your daily task list into A, B, and C priorities.

  • A tasks are your ‘must do – critical’ tasks that you know about, or potentially may crop up during the day. These need focus ahead of the B’s.
  • B tasks are your ‘should do – important’ tasks. What you don’t complete today might become the A tasks tomorrow.
  • C tasks are the ‘nice to do – beneficial’ tasks that can hold off a while, or that you can work on when the A and B tasks are done or progressed as far as they can be.

Reduce distractions

When you know you need to focus on something important, block out time in your diary and, if necessary, let people who work with you know that you will be working on it. You may want to let certain people know how to contact you in an emergency or if something comes up that is urgent to respond to, and to leave this particular communications channel open to them.

  • Try switching off your electronic and phone messaging tools when you work on important tasks (or keep one emergency channel available for the few people who you will allow to contact you).
  • Turn off or set you status as ‘offline’ or ‘do not disturb’ on your instant messaging application so others are not likely to ping you.
  • If you are in a room, hang a ‘Do Not Disturb’ or ‘Priority Interrupts Only’ sign/note outside. If you are home and the family is there, would you consider wearing your office badge around the house which signifies you’re working and invisible for the moment. You never know, it might keep you in a work frame of mind.

Allow time to focus

When you have a complex or detailed task to undertake, know that it can take a while to get into the right frame of mind, so allow yourself time to get into it. Try to resist the temptation to veer off to check new emails and the like. If you have to, close your email program and take the phone off the hook.

Remember that you choose the attention you give to any given task.

In conclusion, the challenge of multitasking is ever-present today. How we choose to allocate time to our tasks determines what we are able to get done. Striking the right balance between multitasking and focusing on singular, important tasks that we want to complete is a challenge for us all.

We hope that reading this article has not distracted you from something you were working on!

PM Oracles
PM Oracles is Gareth Byatt, Gary Hamilton, Jeff Hodgkinson and Duke Okes, all experienced PMO, program, and project managers who share a common passion to help others and share knowledge about PMO, portfolio, program and project management.
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