How the Best Decision Makers Avoid Multitasking

In the last post, I explained how multitasking is impossible, referencing the research of those in neuro-science. But I left you with the question, “How do the best decision makers get so much done if they don’t multitask? Over a couple of decades of interviewing and observing them, here’s what I’ve discovered:

First, they manage their energy – How much you get accomplished and how well you make decisions is directly affected by the glucose supply to which your brain has access. Too much (those two donuts with coffee), overloads your system. Too little (“I never eat breakfast.”), deprives your brain of the glucose it needs to concentrate. Physical exercise, or lack thereof, has a similar impact. I am not an expert on nutrition. Neither are most great decision makers. But they are aware of the impact certain foods and levels of exercise have on their metabolism, especially as they age. Most maintain a diet and exercise routine they have honed over time. This produces the energy they need for the busy and demanding days they work through. The next time you come in contact with someone you consider a consistently good decision-maker, ask about their diet and exercise. Listen to what they say.

Second, they have a “don’t do” list – Over the years the best decision makers have taken stock of the distractions and time wasters draining their energy and leading to the temptation to focus more than one thing at once. For most, this not a list they’ve written down. It’s more like a regimen of habits they’ve developed to deal with the environmental distractions and temptations we all face. Remember, the only way to break a bad habit is by replacing it with a more positive alternative. For instance, what’s a time suck in your life that should be replaced by something more productive? The time you save will relieve some of the pressure you feel to multitask.

Third, they say “no” more often – This is not “buzz off.” Instead, they find diplomatic ways of declining tasks, meetings, and other activities they find less that a good use of time and attention. This does not mean they are completely focused on themselves. In addition to being high achievers on the job, many are also those who contribute generously to their community. They just maintain a high expectation about time, investment and outcome. They’d rather lead the endeavor, for instance, than serve under someone who is a less-than-adequate manager.

Fourth, they put a “clock” to it – In other words, they chunk their time. Rather than simply starting a project, they consider how long the project should take to complete and then work toward that timeline. Rather than simply attending a meeting, they determine their role and work to minimize their time commitment. Rather than inviting you to sit down in their office, they’ll come to you and remain standing while the conversation takes place. As a result, they accomplish more in shorter periods of time and lessen the probability that they’ll have to double up to catch up.

Fifth, they ask, “What does a successful outcome look like?” when making decisions – In many cases, there can be more than one successful solution to an obstacle or problem. The best decision makers are careful not to get hung up on one specific outcome, if there are others just as good. They also recognize there are lots of times when good enough is good enough. Spending unnecessary time on perfection drains mental energy and wastes time. Consider a project you are working on right now or a decision you’re facing. Have you asked yourself what success will look like? Is there room for more than one successful outcome? Are you spending time perfecting something where “good enough” is solve the problem or satisfy the stakeholders involved?

Sixth, they set aside time for personal balance and recovery – During a recent interview with a business owner, the conversation turned toward balance. Her strategy? “Airplanes are my escape zone,” she said. “I read fun books. I watch a movie. I catch up on personal relationships. I chat with the person next to me. Sometimes I just sit and stare at the seat in front of me and let my thoughts take me where they will. When I deplane, I’m refreshed.” What’s your strategy for balance?

As I mentioned in the last post, all of this takes self-discipline, even enforcing time for recovery. Multitasking is not a solution. It is an obstacle to becoming the decision maker you know you can be.

The Final Word on Multitasking

The debate about whether multitasking improves performance has been going on for more than a decade. Those on one side, maintain that their ability to do two, three, or even four things at once gives them an edge on the day. Those on the other side, argue that focusing on one task at a time produces a better outcome for each endeavor.

Based on interviews with hundreds of decision makers and my own experience, I’ve come down on the one-task-at-a-time side. In reviewing some brain science research, I have become even more convinced that those who claim to successfully multi-task are really deceiving themselves.

Neuroscientist, Daniel J. Levitan, author of viagra ginko pcb design resume format custom business paper essay writing pdf book compare dosage cialis viagra facts essay writing where to find and buycollege homework go does cvs pharmacy sell viagra cialis diario drogasil essay competition for nigerian undergraduates the definition of a thesis follow link dissertation philosophie khagne neurontin swelling hands buying ativan in mexico how do i change my autofill email address on my ipad leicester university dissertation word count hypothesis testing made simple argumentative essay is fashion important pde5a viagra essay about my new friend quels sont les effets du viagra go does daily cialis work enter The Organized Mind, explains it this way: “Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation.”

Levitan goes on to say that, “Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel we need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented even after a short time.”

Relatedly, Torkel Klingberg, M.D., Phd., author of The Overflowing Brain, observes, “How well we manage to multi-task can be related to the information load on working memory. Often, we can do the tasks if one of them is automatic, such as walking. For an activity to be designated “automatic,” it no longer demands any activation of the frontal lobes. However, a working memory task can never be automatic, as the information it contains always has to be encoded through the continual activation of the frontal and parietal lobes. This is why it can be so difficult to do two working memory tasks at once.” In other words, you can’t attend to more than one task at the same time.

There are those who will argue that regardless of the research, they have no choice but to multi-task. “It’s the only way I can keep up,” they’ll say. Or, “My boss claims she does it and expects everyone else to do the same.” Those people have my sympathy. Well established beliefs die hard. But as Levitan puts it, “You’d think people would realize that they’re bad at multitasking and would quit. But a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by at dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they are doing great.”

So, if you can’t multi-task, how do you keep up? By focusing on one task at a time to completion or until you can’t progress due to a missing element, resource or decision. Yes, that requires concentration and the discipline to resist the temptations to do more. How do the best decision makers do this? I’ll cover that in the next post.

Warning: Multi-tasking Kills Your Productivity


Be honest – Can you really multi-task? The answer has to be “no.” Here’s why — Multi-tasking is physically impossible! Research has determined that your brain’s working (or short-term) memory can manage as many as five stimuli at a time. But . . . this includes elements such as the temperature in the room, ambient noise, aromas, and other environmental factors. It can only attend to one stimuli, such as what a person is saying, the screen you are watching, or text you are reading. If something disrupts the environment, such as a loud noise, all these stimuli are flushed and working memory begins to assemble another set. This is why you can get really frustrated trying to multi-task. You’re dealing with an endless cycle of resets!

What many people perceive as multi-tasking is actually time-slicing according researchers. In other words, your attention bounces back and forth instantaneously from task to task. If you’re loading the dishwasher, answering robo calls, and picking up after the kids, this might be fine. But if you’re writing a report, analyzing a budget or negotiating a deal, it will be disastrous.

So stop kidding yourself. The effort you put into multi-tasking saps your energy and concentration. Attend to one task at a time. Work in an environment that allows you to concentrate. Begin with a crystal clear vision of what the accomplished task looks like, even if it’s folding the laundry. When you’re finished, move on to the next task and celebrate the sense of accomplishment.

Vanquish Multitasking with These Seven Steps


Jackie can answer customer calls, complete reports, text her kids and keep her eye on Facebook all at once. She may seem a bit scattered at times, but prides herself on efficiency. She also thinks people who can only focus on one task are squandering time.

Elaine is one of those people. Rather balancing five activities at the same time, Elaine is known for closing her door and disappearing into one project for two hours. Admittedly, she’s not up to date with the latest office conversations and hasn’t checked Facebook in a couple of weeks. But here’s the thing . . . Jackie works for Elaine. In fact, Elaine runs the division. Jackie’s on the front line. They’re about the same age with the similar formal educations.

So what’s the difference? The way they work and their choice of priorities. Jackie believes she can attend to several tasks at the same time. All it takes is flexibility. She’s read all the articles and posts on multitasking and thinks she has it down to a science. Elaine on the other hand, has discovered that her habit of allotting time for focus affords her the opportunity to understand the broader context of a decision or project. In the process, she produces more thoughtful outcomes.

Why the difference between Jackie and Elaine? Simply put, Elaine discovered long ago that the people in the positions she aspired to prioritize the tasks and projects before them. Then they stick with each one until it is finished. In the process, they don’t feel as scattered. They are also better able to plumb the depths of their knowledge and experience, coming up with the best solution rather than the one that’s just good enough. In return, they are perceived as wise and insightful. This, of course, has propelled them into positions of greater influence.

Multi-tasking has become a symbol of productivity in today’s workplace. If you can juggle five tasks while eating lunch and walking the dog, people are supposed to admire you. The problem is you can’t . . . and most of them don’t. As I continue the interviews for Common Sense by Friday, my forthcoming book, a consistent theme has been compartmentalization. That is the habit of setting aside defined blocks of time for completing significant projects and considering important decisions. “I’ve learned over time,” senior manager told me, that if I don’t take the time, no one will give it to me.”

So, how do you make the shift from multi-tasking to the focus and compartmentalization critical to moving up within the organization? After all, you’ll feel like you’re swimming against the tide, at least at first.

Start small – Habits are hard to break, especially when you’re proud of them. If you’re going to make better decisions and move up within the organization, the scattered thinking that results from multitasking has to go. That doesn’t mean you can extinguish this practice overnight. Incremental change will be your friend here. How about that project due at the end of the week? Rather than chunking it in with all the stuff on your plate, set aside a block of time when you can concentrate and complete it. This may feel uncomfortable at first. Your reward, however, will be better insights into the approach and solutions you need produce a more thoughtful outcome.

Set benchmarks – What’s reasonable? Try setting aside one task the first week, two tasks the second, and so on. Obviously, some ongoing tasks will still require immediate and perhaps ongoing attention. Make a list of what you do each week. Identify the projects and decisions that are good candidates for your more productive way of getting things done.

Explain yourself – Co-workers will ask, “What’s happening to you? You don’t seem to be as efficient as you used to be.” But efficiency is not the goal. It’s effectiveness that counts. Be careful about sharing too much. The other multitaskers will want to suck you back into their ranks. Say something like, “I’m just trying something a little different.” That should satisfy their curiosity. If they press, repeat the same basic response and excuse yourself to go back to work.

What about your boss? He may be used to dumping the details on you because “the multitaskers always get the stuff done.” Take him to coffee and say, “I’ve discovered that when I concentrate on one project at a time, I actually make better decisions and do more thoughtful work. So I’m getting away from trying to juggle a bunch of stuff at the same time. It’s just not as effective.” Hopefully, he will embrace this. If not, you have another decision to make.

Compartmentalize distractions – Let’s face it, much of society has become centered around FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out. This includes social media, CNN updates, and the latest video downloads. You can’t just turn all this off. Besides, going “cold turkey” will make you nuts. Rather than all or nothing, set aside increasing amounts of time when you train your focus on the task or decision at hand. Then reward yourself by checking Facebook, searching Pinterest for recipes or watching cute kitty videos on YouTube. Will this transition take time? You bet. But anything worth having requires self-discipline and perseverance.

Seek insights from those who do it well – Look around, you know who those people are. They are the people you admire, the people in charge, the people to whom others turn for counsel. Outside of your workplace, you might find them in your other activities such as a place of worship, a school activity or a hobby you pursue. Make a list of them. When the opportunity presents itself, ask each one, “I admire how you’re able to make the best decisions by really focusing on the task at hand. What are your secrets for doing so?” Then get quiet, listen and learn.

Build your stamina – Changing habits is hard. But no one said the path to on-going success was easy. We are all surrounded by endless distractions and temptations. Incremental change is the key to ridding yourself of the multitasking monster. Those who do, however, are rewarded with a sense of momentum in their outcomes. They discover the value of concentration, reflection and grit. After all, it not how fast you make a decision, but the quality of the outcome. That’s what gets people promoted.

Relish the rewards – Talk to those who have vanquished multitasking and developed good habits of concentration and compartmentalization. They’ll tell you they also take time to enjoy the rewards. Ironically, they sometimes get their best insights when relaxing and reflecting. For them, taking time to focus is critical. But taking time to relax as well forms a great balance for success.