Multitasking makes you stupid - do these 3 things instead

Posted by Dike Drummond MD

multitasking makes you stupid optMultitasking makes you stupid 

The neuroscience is clear, multitasking does not work. It is not a "skill" you can develop. It is not something you can possibly get good at. Multitasking is an urban myth in my opinion. In a healthcare setting, it can actually threaten patient's lives.

The reason multitasking does not work is simple to explain

Your attention - the bandwidth of your awareness - has a finite capacity. There is only so much attention to go around. You get the best results when you give ALL of it to a single task or observation.

If you are doing one thing ... say reading an MRI report on one of your patients

And you add in a second activity at the same time ... say taking a phone call (and trying to continue to read the MRI report)

Your available attention for each individual activity has instantly been cut in half. You are now half as good at reviewing an MRI report -- and your phone conversation will have half the quality it would if that was the only thing you were doing.

Congratulations - your multitasking (just two tasks in this case) has allowed you to instantly do a half-assed job. Unfortunately we are just getting started.

Here is the mathmatical relationship between multitasking and quality

Multitasking quality equation opt

There are two unfortunate consequences to this equation

1) When you multitask you really do look stupid -- and do a 1/2 or 1/3 or 1/4 assed job of whatever multiple tasks you are trying to accomplish at one time.

2) In healthcare, where even little mistakes can have big consequences, multitasking is downright dangerous.

But what can you do when there simply ARE too many tasks and not enough time in the average office or hospital day?

Try these three field-tested tools instead


1) Batch Processing

As you go through your day, put similar tasks in piles and process the piles one at a time in batches.

Carve out protected time so that the batch is the only thing you are doing. The similar activities help you maintain your focus as you move through the tasks one at a time.


2) Use your Team

Being a workaholic, lone ranger, perfectionist is part of our conditioning. It is what drives a lot of our multitasking urges. Every doctor I have ever coached works too hard because they have not learned how to lead their team with maximal effectiveness.

If you are doing any activity ... take a second to ask why am I the person doing this?

Does this activity take the skills, education and experience of a physician? If not, who on my team could be doing it instead? Ask your team the same questions about every task that makes you want to multitask in your day.

Then delegate and systemize everything you can.

Make sure you and every member of your team is assigned tasks matched to their skills and experience. If that seems overwhelming from the vantage point of your current situation, pick one task that is a sticking point and work these questions with your team at your monthly staff meeting.

  • What is our goal for this task?
  • Who is doing it right now?
  • How is that going?
  • What would work better?
  • Who would be the person completing the step now?
  • How would we measure this new way of doing things?
  • When will we start this new system?
  • When will we meet again to see how it is going? 


multitasking sequential monotasking opt3) Sequential Mono-Tasking or "Beads on a String"

This is a personal work habit. To explain it best, think about a fine pearl necklace.

A high quality pearl necklace has knots between each pearl. This way, if the string breaks, only one pearl falls off. Without the knots, all the pearls would cascade onto the floor and bounce away.

The activities of your day are like the pearls on the necklace. You can arrange them to come one at a time.

Your breath is the knot in between each pearl.

You use your breath as a release between each activity. Exhale and release the task and feelings you just finished and turn to face the next activity with a clean attitude and your full attention.

You can learn this "Squeegee Breath" mindfulness technique and much more in our 1 Minute Stress Relief Program here.


When you find yourself multitasking now

- Breathe
- Come back to just one activity - the one you are most qualified for
- Let the other activity go for now until you get to its position on the string of pearls
- See if it can be batched or delegated in the future
- And breathe again



What are your favorite anti-multitasking tools?




Tags: dike drummond, the happy md, physician leadership, batch processing, multitasking makes you stupid, multitasking

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