It is not possible for humans to multitask. If you’ve researched the topic at any level you will agree with me. Simply put we humans are not wired to take on more than one complex task at the same time. If you already know this and subscribe to this thought then you can skip to “The working world” label below.  Otherwise, please read the next couple paragraphs.

Multitasking defined

Jerry Weinberg explains in his book (Weinberg, G.M. Quality Software Management: Vol. 1 System Thinking. New York. Dorset House, 1992.) that multitasking costs as much as 20% for each additional task you take on. If you have one task you can put 100% of your available brain power on that task. If you have two tasks on the go at one time, the wasted brain power to switch between them will be as much as 20%. If you take on 3 tasks the cost of wasted brain power will increase to 40%. 4 tasks will mean 60% waste and so on.  It’s staggering to think how much brain power we use up to switch tasks.

I always hear the argument that multitasking must be possible as I can watch TV and wash the dishes. I also hear how people can listen to music and jog at the same time. You’re right it is possible to multi task in those situations. The key is when in those situations one of the two tasks must require no planning thought what so ever. In other words, it’s possible when only one task requires any planning thought.

I usually have non-vocal jazz playing when I’m writing (like right now). I actually find it easier to be in my creative zone with the music there. If there are vocals however they seem to distract from the thinking process needed to write. My theory is I’m trying to process the lyrics and therefore trying to multitask.

Texting and driving are a lethal combination as they are both complex tasks. Both require planning thought to make happen. This is why when I see someone texting and driving they are driving erratically, swerving, slowing down significantly, and so much more. Stop it … you cannot do both at the same time and continue to drive safely!!  The other day I was driving on the highway when the person in front of me slowed by 40km/h! Didn’t take long to see she was texting. So I honked at her … several times with no response. She was so focused on her texting & driving that she didn’t hear me honking. This was my F-150 so no wimpy horn either. Seriously?!!?

The working world

One of the most common things I encounter is people trying to multitask in the work place. It usually manifests itself in a similar fashion where the manager keeps tossing work over the wall and the people accept it. More accurately the people quietly add it to the pile then complain about it later around the water cooler.

When I find this happening I usually find an accompanying set of patterns present:

  • The people think management is out of touch with the reality of working at this place or they would know this isn’t realistic to keep adding to the pile
  • The manager thinks the people are being lazy, inefficient (or some other descriptor) and if only they work smarter they’d be in better shape
  • The quality of the outcomes is slipping as people become more focused on just getting stuff off their desk. It’s not that they’re bad people but in an effort to shift more from their desk they will unconsciously let quality slip in an effort to keep up with the demand
  • The water cooler talk is heating up as the morale of the organization is slipping

Exact signs may vary but the situation likely became a cultural norm over a long time. I suspect there is no one source of this problem but it’s a combination of factors contributing to bring you here. Contributing factors may include dysfunctional reward and recognition systems, structures that encourage individual performance over team performance, the attempted industrialization of knowledge work and so much more.

Regardless of what kind of shovel you’re using, when you’re standing neck deep in mud perhaps it’s time to stop digging the hole.

When confronted with this what I often see is the world’s most common justification to problems … “it’s just the way it is around here.” I hear stories about unreasonable customers, weak structures, weak economy, crappy management and so much more. Regardless of your story it’s not going to make things better by continuing to tell it.

The reality is you got to this place over a very long time. So unfortunately you will not fix it over night. The good news is you can start to correct the situation a lot faster compared to the time it took to get here.

To start with you may want to examine how you are approaching this problem:

  • If you’re feeling trapped and there is no choice but to just keep piling it on you might be in a state of obligation
  • If you think you’re just not good enough to make it any better you might be in a state of shame
  • If you’re saying this is just the way it’s always been around here you may be in a state of justification
  • If you’re pointing fingers at those demanding customers you might be in a state of blame
  • If you think it’s too painful to tell your customers you’re likely in denial 

Regardless of your exact situation (or multiple situations) you are not going to improve things by continuing to do what you’re doing now.

You may want to approach things from a state of responsibility. Work together (customer, manager, and team) to understand what is real and true. Once you have clarity on the truth I know you will be able to work together to move in a better direction.

As an example, I frequently see managers taking on more work simply because their customer asks them to. This amounts to giving the illusion of progress by starting something. Ask yourself what your customer really cares about. Do they care about you starting something? Of course not, they care when you finish something for them. If you agree with me then wouldn’t it be better to confront what is true, and work with your customer ensuring you can finish stuff?

I’d also be willing to bet if you find yourself in this situation you are maintaining a list of stuff todo in a spreadsheet (or some other computerized tool). The problem with keeping it in a spreadsheet is people struggle to see the whole picture. When you look at a spreadsheet all you’re seeing is a small portion of it, so often people will fool themselves into thinking the problem isn’t that bad.

Get it out of the computer and in the open by putting up a kanban board. It doesn’t have to be overly complex to start … even if it just has the columns “backlog, doing, done”. Don’t worry about WIP limits, metrics and all that other stuff at first. I’ve seen over and over how simply visualizing the work is very powerful in starting everyone on a better path.

Warning: Once you have a better grasp of the breadth of the problem at hand, start implementing things like WIP limits, tracking metrics and more. I’ve seen teams not do this and it starts to back fire.

Your situation is going to be unique. How you got here or what it would take to improve may differ than your neighbour. What I know with certainty is if you continue to do what you’re doing things won’t get better.

Take responsibility for the multitasking happening around you.


Note: I am a Accredited Practitioner in The Leadership Gift ProgramTM. The words Responsibility, Obligation, Shame, Justify, Blame and Denial have very specific meanings. If you’d like to know more I suggest you check out Christopher Avery’s site at
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