The Multitasking Myth
Have you ever tried to follow a conversation on the phone and watch TV at the same time? What about doing long-division in your head whilst counting change? Western life is already a bustling march of activity and movement, not helped by the fact that the world today is full of distractions and aggressive plays for our attention, from every angle. Most people struggle with patting their head and rubbing their belly at the same time, never mind following two trains of thought simultaneously. That’s because multitasking in its purest form is actually physically impossible.
A study by the University of Michigan has concluded that it is not possible for the brain to process more than one stream of thought at once. “Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” neuroscientist Earl Miller says; “you’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”
The myth has certainly pervaded society. For centuries, women in particular have been renowned, applauded and pressured their supposed ability to multitask. The 2011 Hollywood hit “I Don’t Know How She Does It” – adapted from Allison Pearson’s novel – perpetuates this idea on a multi-million dollar scale, showing a frazzled, insecure, unfocused (but “successful!”) Sarah Jessica Parker attempt to balance work and family life. Ultimately, the film – in which the protagonist acts on her right to flexible working and prioritises her family over her job – reveals that even for such a determined woman, balancing is not a sustainable lifestyle.
Let me say right now, this article is not a feminist polemic on the plight working mothers, or a dialectic on the art of mother- and wifehood vs. a thriving career. It is a call to realise that multitasking – or its twin in disguise, balancing – is an inadequate way of managing one’s time for men and women. When trying to concentrate on a conversation with a loved one, and a TV feature you don’t want to miss, how do you follow both? You can’t; the best you can do is alternate your attention between the two, leaving you with two fragmented stories in your head, and no appropriate response. The only way you can properly engage with either is to choose. In the same way, managing your priorities should not be sought by balancing – or worse, multitasking – but by deciding on what is the most important task at that moment, on that day, or during that week and focusing on it fully.
The Rule of One
In the words of Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, there is always one thing that, if done, will make everything else easier or unnecessary. In the business sphere particularly, the concept rings true. Start-up entrepreneurship often feels like a professional juggling act between Marketing, Sales, HR, Admin, Customer Relations, Procurement, and Operations. Attempting to manage your organisation on this basis – particularly in the early days – will leave you just as frazzled, insecure and unfocused as Pearson’s protagonist. But if you understand the principles, stages and cycles of business management, then you will be able to reflect on where you are and focus on the “vital few” or vital one thing at any time.
For example, since investing in yourself should come before employing and leading others, perhaps personal development is the most appropriate course of action right now, meaning recruitment and HR programmes can wait. Or, as your ultimate goal in business is to solve a problem to benefit humanity, why not focus on product development and hold off on sales, or invite your sales team to help you optimise your product or service? Equally, since marketing is the biggest determining factor in your company’s success, cut excessive admin and reduce activities that don’t generate an income: focus on marketing! Leverage the potential of your Admin and even Procurement team, by involving them in promotional discussions. Utilise your logistics team and assets to maximise your marketing opportunities (e.g. by branding your van, or using more vehicles to increase flyer distribution).
Corporate giants such as Apple are known for their streamlined approach, with each new product being a focal point for every branch of the company’s infrastructure, meaning all of their efforts can be channelled toward optimisation and maximum impact.
In your life, and in business, what is one thing that, if done, will make everything else easier or unnecessary? The time of organisational balancing, multitasking, and panoramic viewing is over. Discover your one thing and experience greater dynamism today.