Introducing a Third Player into the Single- vs. Multi-Tasking Debate

Let’s talk about performance optimization in the form of multitasking. Multitasking has gotten a bad reputation in the last few years. A central debate has unfolded regarding whether it’s better to approach tasks sequentially (one at a time), or running multiple tasks at the same time (simultaneously) (See Fischer and Plessow’s “Efficient multitasking: parallel versus serial processing of multiple tasks“). 

Where We Got Confused

I’ve personally had a hard time with the recent revolt against multitasking. I love multitasking, and I cannot understand how anyone could finish any project in any timely manner without it. It took me a long time to figure out exactly why I was so frustrated with the idiots that say single-tasking is more efficient. Until one day, I took it back to the words we were using and the meanings behind those words. I realized that not everyone defines ‘multi-tasking’ in the same way that I do.

Let’s take a quick detour into Project Management.

Concept of the Critical Path

Project Management is like juggling a dozen tennis balls at once. You have to keep your eye on each of them, and know when to catch and throw each one. If you missed just one ball, your whole performance is ruined. To complete a project successfully, you have to  control a large number of activities all at the same time, and ensure that they’re completed on schedule and on budget. If you miss a single deadline or even so much as finish a task out of sequence, it could mean project failure.

Project Managers use a Gantt Chart to visually outline all of the tasks involved in their project in their proper order shown against the overall timescale of the project. A PM uses a Gantt Chart to work out aspects of each task related to the project, such as the minimum time it will take to do a certain step in the process, and which tasks need to be completed before others can start. This process allows the PM to identify the critical path – the sequence of tasks that must individually be completed on time if the whole project is to deliver on time. I strongly believe that the concept of identifying the critical path and the skill required in creating parallel tasks in a Gantt Chart is the missing link in the single- vs. multi-task debate.

Introducing a Clarifying Third Player, Parallel-Tasking

Most people in this debate strongly feel that there are only two camps in the debate: single-tasking and multi-tasking. I’m here to introduce a third player: parallel-tasking.

First, some general definitions. These are not official definitions, but rather, my own interpretations. I am forced to use these generalizations because I found no usable definitions in my epic search to make this concept more clear.

Single-Tasking: completing a single task, one at a time, absolutely no overlap, one singular focus until the task is complete.

Multi-Tasking: completing several tasks from several different projects, all at the same time, with multiple windows open on your computer, a productive chaos reigns.

Parallel-Tasking: completing several tasks from several different almost at the same time, but each single task is approached strategically during required downtime(s).

I think the concept of parallel-tasking is most clear in project management and the skills required to create a good, solid, and beautiful Gantt Chart. Everyone has several tasks and several projects that need to be completed throughout the workday. Managing our time and productivity should not be based solely on time restraints and how we happen to be feeling at the moment. I encourage you to begin thinking about your daily workflow as parallel-tasking in a Gantt Chart.

Multi-Tasking is Strategically Different from Parallel Activities

Multi-Tasking is different from parallel activities. Muti-Tasking is often trying to do too much at once and giving your complete attention to the task that’s due at that moment. Running parallel activities is strategically looking  at all of the things you need to do, when you need to complete each task in order to meet the deadline, understand how long each task will take and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, understanding the downtime associated with each task. For example, will someone need to check your work after step one before proceeding to step two? Does step three take a few days to ‘simmer’ with another department before being returned to you for processing?

How to Plan Your Week with Strategic Parallel Activities

Here are some practical steps you can take to be more intentional and strategic about your time management:

  1. Do a weekly review and understand the relationship between tasks.
    • First, capture everything! Process all of your notes, ideas and to-do’s into the right place.
    • Reflect on last week’s accomplishments. Did you get everything done? If not, why not? Are there any follow-ups, escalations, or complications from last week that are going to bleed into this week?
    • Review your calendar. What commitments do you have? What preparations do you need to do?
    • Allocate things from your monthly to-do/tasks/goals. Ensure goals have a clear next action point.
  2. Plan for interruptions, but do not loose sight of your priority list. Keep tasks in order and deadlines at the forefront of your mind.
  3. Ask for deadlines and clarify tasks. If you’re like me, you get handed jobs haphazardly on an as-needed basis sometimes. When you get handed this type of task, ask some clarifying questions: When do you need this by? Do you want to review it before I submit it? Who else needs to see this?
  4. Delegation opens the window for parallel-tasking but has inherent risks. Know your team and communicate individual task deadlines. Monitor project progress at all times.
  5. Know when good is good enough. Sometimes, a menial task is required just to get to the next step,
  6. Use visual reminders. Try to create a Gantt Chart of the next six months, you may not be able to plan for everything, but you’ll be able to look ahead and see where the big milestone dates fall. Try to create something that visually shows the task order and all deadlines. This could be a set of calendar appointments in Outlook or a Post-It note on your computer screen.
  7. Clue in your boss. You’re changing your workflow and how you work. Let your boss in on the conversation. Let them know that you are trying to work smarter and as a result, you are going to be asking for more deadline-specific information in future.