Leadership Story | Leaders Avoid Multitasking

In a recent coaching session, the client shared a revelation which occurred after attending an Academy Leadership Excellence course. She realized her everyday work rhythm was an exhausting attempt to get as much done as possible, often performing multiple tasks at the same time. That’s right - multi-tasking. We all do it. And it’s a really bad habit we should avoid as leaders. A quick exercise will prove why.

Try this, either now, or sometime in the future. You’ll need something to record time, like a stopwatch timer on your smartphone. Start with two blank pieces of paper. On each page draw two vertical lines creating three empty columns. Here’s what to do. In the first column, you’ll list the letters a-j, the first ten letters of the alphabet. In the second column, you’ll list the numbers 1-10. In the the third column, you’ll list roman numerals i-x, the first ten roman numerals.

Here’s the catch: The first time you perform this timed exercise, you’ll fill the page moving across the page, starting with a, then 1, then i, switching columns each time. Go ahead and do that and have your timer record how many seconds it takes. You’ll notice a lot of starting and stopping. The second time fill out an entire column one at a time, starting with a-j, then 1-10, and lastly i-x. A lot less switching. Notice the difference in your times. Chances are it took you 40-50% longer the first time.

Why is that?

Context switching is why. When we switch between tasks, we’re spending time, and precious energy, simply moving between the different activities. And with each additional task added, the working time available for each task decreases. Typically the context switching loss between three exercises, as in the exercise we just tried, is about 40%. It gets worse. By the time we are performing five simultaneous tasks, context switching loss is nearly 80%. Might as well not even work anymore at that point.

It pays to identify your genuine High Payoff Activities, and then work on them one at a time. What are your High Payoff Activities? Do you prioritize them and focus on them every day? How do you avoid distractions? Leaders Avoid Multitasking.