Have You Been Boasting About Your Inefficiency?

The Washington Planner, Vol. 27 Issue 1

January 2013

By Kristina Cerise

Have you ever boasted about your inefficiency on your résumé or bragged to your boss that you only work 5.9 of the 8 hours you are getting paid for? Probably not intentionally. But if you include “excellent multitasker” or a similar phrase on your résumé or pride yourself on your ability to do two things at once, you have essentially done just that. Saying you are good at multitasking is the same as saying that you excel at the least efficient way to get things done.

The human brain cannot multitask. Brains work like spotlights, focusing on one thing at a time. We are biologically incapable of processing multiple attention-rich inputs simultaneously. Our brains can “background task” with tasks that don't require our conscious attention (e.g. walking, breathing, chewing), but most of us aren't bragging about our ability to walk and talk at the same time.

What we call “multitasking” is actually switch-tasking. We interrupt our focus on a speaker to read an email or stop proofreading a document to take a phone call. Each of those switches comes with a cost. The cost is the time it takes for the spotlight of our attention to shift to a new subject and the time it takes to go back to what we were doing and answer, “Where was I?” The more complicated the interrupted task, the greater the cost.

The average employee gets interrupted every 11 minutes. Sometimes, we are interrupted by co-workers stopping by with a question or clients calling for an update. Sometimes we interrupt ourselves by checking Facebook or getting up for a cup of coffee. The average switching costs add up to 2.1 hours per day, per person. In addition to the time lost to the actual switching, research shows that switch-tasking results in 50 percent more mistakes.

Here are some ideas for eliminating interruptions and reclaiming an extra two hours a day:

  • Minimize the self-inflicted interruptions. Limit or eliminate “quick checks” of non-work related websites. Save your coffee breaks for transition times between projects.
  • Silence the “ding” on your cell phone that alerts you to new emails.
  • Turn off the visual email teaser that shows up on your computer screen.
  • If you need an extended period of time without interruption, manage the expectations of co-workers and clients with a temporary out-of-office message on your voicemail and email that says you are unavailable but will return calls and emails at a specified time.
  • If you are a person to gets a lot of “quick questions” from co-workers, consider establishing drop in office hours. Ask co-workers to save up their questions for the time you've set aside unless it is truly a question that requires an immediate answer.
  • If there are certain people you need to talk to regularly, establish a set time for such check-ins (daily or weekly as appropriate). By doing so, you eliminate interruptions and switching costs for all involved and maximize everyone's productivity.

Remember, what we call multitasking is usually switch-tasking, and claiming to be great at it is claiming to waste 25 percent of the work day, take longer to get things done, and make lots of mistakes. Instead, celebrate your ability to carve out opportunities for time where you can focus your attention exclusively on a single project.

Start 2014 off right with an extra two hours a day to accomplish all your resolutions.

Kristina Cerise is a land use planner in the Seattle office of Van Ness Feldman.


This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of The Washington Planner, a publication of the American Planning Association Washington Chapter.

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