Multi-tasking and busyness – just how efficient are you really?

Two opposing ideas are dominating the discourse about work and, indeed, about life too. The first applauds multi-tasking and admires people who seem able to do many things at once. The second tells people to live in the present. As Maya Angelou says, “Be present in all things and thankful for all things.”


“I did things I did not understand for reasons I could not begin to explain just to be in motion, to be trying to do something.” Dorothy Allison, Trash: Stories. (Photo: Catherine Burrows)


We read sensible, helpful articles which give people strategies to manage their emails efficiently, including by only looking at them a few times a day, and promoting the idea of not starting your day with emails but by ‘eating the frog’ of your most difficult and important task.

Then we hear about people whose managers require them to respond to their emails instantly, and be logged onto instant messaging, at all hours. How can a person manage this without multitasking? And what is the cost?

Lisa Quast cites research which found only two per cent of the population are exceptional multi-taskers.

The implication of this, of course, is that the rest of us – 98% – are not good multitaskers. This won’t surprise anyone who has sat behind someone texting at a green traffic light. In fact, David Strayer’s research showed, “Outside the lab…the multitasking deficit held steady. When Strayer and his colleagues observed fifty-six thousand drivers approaching an intersection, they found that those on their cell phones were more than twice as likely to fail to heed the stop signs,” as Maria Konnikova reports.

What about in the workplace? It turns out that multi-tasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.

David Sbarra has described how he trained himself to be less busy. He realised he had become “…a robot, programmed to obliterate my to-do list…” “addicted to busyness”. He decided that “To get more out of life – more meaning, more joie de vivre – I needed to start doing less and to become more conscious about my choices.”

His strategies were amazingly simple. He started by being outside and walking more. Next, he tried valuing idleness, left Facebook and got “serious about laughing more”. Finally, he focused on the value of friendships. While it’s a work in progress, he says the result is, “I am feeling better than I have in a long time – more deliberate in the choices I make, more connected to the people around me, and more energized for the demands of the day. The surprising irony here, for me at least, is that by doing less, I am getting way more out life.”

Working with an executive coach can help you to overcome mindless multitasking. A coach can help you identify those tasks you are doing from a sense of busyness rather than necessity. A coach can help you build strategies to focus on what’s important. Finally, if you need to have a difficult conversation with your manager about improving your productivity by not answering every email as soon as it is sent, an executive coach can help with this too.