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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

The Myth of Multitasking

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Most federal managers feel they have no choice but to multitask. Among the multiple projects with overlapping deadlines, performance reports that need to be filed and employees who require direction, tackling one task at a time seems like a luxury supervisors can't afford. But multitasking could be slowing you down and costing the government valuable productivity points.

This loss in efficiency stems from what researchers call "switchover time," the time needed to refocus on the original task after you've temporarily switched gears. In a 2001 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers showed that switchover time can take a couple of minutes for every change. Multiple switch-overs a day-even an hour-can sap a significant amount of productivity.

So what should managers do? Multitask less.

In an academic study published Feb. 14, 2008, in The Journal of High Technology Management Research, managers said the key to managing multiple projects is to minimize switchovers by being meticulously organized, methodical and focused.

One manager said he clears his desk of all documents or reminders of projects B, C and D while working on project A. Of course, this becomes increasingly difficult with technology in the mix. You might be able to clear your desk of documents, but it's much harder to keep project B-, C- and D-related emails from popping up in your inbox. Technology-related multitasking exacerbates what some call technostress in the workplace. Technology is effective and helpful in part because computers are designed to multitask, but the human mind is not designed the same way.

"The human mind can switch from one task to the other but it keeps the previous task queued somewhere in the back of the mind," Peter E. Brillhart wrote in a September 2004 article for The Journal of the American Academy of Business. "The more tasks we try to multitask the less efficient we become at performing any tasks . . . Laboratory research shows that multitasking increases stress, diminishes perceived control, and may cause physical discomfort such as stomach aches or headaches."

You might be reading this and sighing, convinced that you are the outlier-the rare, exceptional human whose productivity is multiplied by multitasking. Odds are you're wrong. A 2009 Stanford University study set out to determine what, exactly, effective multitaskers were doing better than everyone else. The study focused on people who multitasked extensively while using different forms of media (the computer, smartphones, etc.). To their surprise, the answer was-nothing. People who multitask at the highest levels are "suckers for irrelevancy," says Clifford Nass, a Stanford communication professor and co-author of the study. Apparently they are easily distracted and struggle to distinguish a worthy distraction from one that should be pushed aside.

So the next time you're tempted to knock out a few emails before finishing up that report on your desk, think again.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive and now is a legal intern at the General Services Administration.

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