Advanced Multitasking: Do more, work less, be happy

by Mike Sanders

This website is dedicated to exploring the topic of advanced multitasking. In this exploration, I will share my multitasking experience, research and analysis with you. Looking soberly at the way I was working, I discovered an unexpected reality in multitasking. The end result was a model for a higher level of multitasking, or advanced multitasking. This model has helped me understand conscious behavior more about myself.
As a result of changing the fundamental way I handle tasks, I became much more productive and work fewer hours. This has made me very happy.


An L.A. Story ...

A master multitasker, one day I had to be at four jobs stretching 150 miles, attend two conference calls at the same time, prepare a presentation for an important meeting later that day, and planned to eat my L.A. power lunch (a banana) while on the road. Serious business. Master multitasking is not for the weak of heart or Type B personality. It belongs in the realm of overachievers, even the ADD.

But I digress. When it was over, I had touched the four jobs, attended both conference calls, finished my power lunch, and prepared my presentation given successfully at my lasy stop. Afterwards, setting in my office, I couldn't help but bask in victory over these many tasks. I asked myself, "Why am I such a good multitasker? I need to share this gift with the world." I named my gift Advanced Multitasking.

And that, friends, launched me on a personal journey ... horrifying, head shrinking, and rich with information and personal power. What I found out, I really want you to know. It began with a bit research on the subject and then an objective self assessment.

Paragraph heading links are listed below for your convenience.

What is Multitasking? back

To begin my research, I decided to define Multitasking. Some common definitions are listed below:

  • "… ability to do more than one thing at a time." (Cambridge Dictionary)

  • "… performing multiple tasks at one time." (Webster Dictionary)

  • "… concurrent operation by one CPU of two or more processes." (American Heritage Dictionary)

Multitasking logic goes like this. Our brain is like a computer’s CPU. A CPU can co-process, doing more than one thing at a time. Therefore, we can do more than one thing at a time. For our purpose, let's define Multitasking as "doing more than one thing at a time."

Establishing Multitasking Metrics back

So I felt my Multitasking, which had achieved a new, high level of competence, needed to be measured. And since I had been keeping a planner and journal for over 20 years, I decided to assess my Multitasking productivity over the previous one year period. To do this, I came up with the following metrics as objective measurements.

  • Task Loading - tasks in process; on my plate each week

  • Completed Tasks - tasks completed each week

  • Overtime - hours worked over 40 per week; overtime

  • Health - relative body weight, sleep quality, and regular exercise

  • Happiness - personal fun and work enjoyment; yes, a bit subjective, but not hard to evaluate

  • Relationships - Both personal and business (better, worse, no change)

Actual Multitasking Metrics (Real Measurements Over a Year) back

As I looked back over the past year in my planner and journal, the evidence was clear: I wasn't doing well. The measurements were undeniable and certainly not what I expected.

  • Task Loading - There were now twice as many tasks in my queue each week.

  • Completed Tasks - I was completing only half as many each week.

  • Overtime - I was working double the overtime hours each week; many times over 20.

  • Health - My health was poorer; I had gained over 30 lbs, did not exercise, and did not sleep regularly.

  • Happiness - Had become genuinely unhappy; I had less fun time at home, generally disliked my job, and I was not very happy at work or at home.

  • Relationships - Relationships had become strained at work and at home.

These facts horrified me. I looked them over again and again in disbelief. You see, I completely believed I had become much more productive and happier over the past year. This was because I was doing more things. But, apparently, just doing more is not enough. My life was actually failing, taking a downturn; and I had thought I was winning.

I needed to find out more about what was going on.

Was I really Multitasking? back

“To do two things at once is to do neither.” Publilius Syros - Roman Philosopher – 43AD

This infamous quote implies that we have known there are problems doing more than one thing at a time, for some time. The research proves this out as well.

As cited in Monitor on Psychology, " ... multitasking may actually be less efficient -- especially for complicated or unfamiliar tasks -- because it takes extra time to shift mental gears every time a person switches between the two tasks" (Smith, October, 2001).

My research on the subject began with simple internet searches and the same type of information continued to pour in. Multitasking causes problems. The body of knowledge on the subject was consistent. We really were not really Multitasking. And when we try to Multitask, doing more than one thing at a time, we are just clouding our minds with many, fuzzy images of previous tasks while working on the one at hand. These could be called task frames or ghosts.

We are not really Multitasking when we try to do more than one thing at a time, we are actually "task switching." Sometimes, we may be switching many times a minute. Task switching has many perils.

What about Task Switching? back

As mentioned earlier, task switching can happen many times a minute. We switch tasks in our minds often. But the more complex the task is, the harder it is to switch, the more cognitive impairment. Cognitive damage can happen over time. This happens because we often switch tasks:

  • Many times per minute. (It has been estimated we have up to 60,000 thoughts per day.)

  • Without assigning thoughtful task priority.

  • Without regard to task scope.

  • Without considering the resources required to perform the task.

Tasking Enablers back

To switch tasks easier and more productively, we need to enable the switching. There are three task switching enablers: 1) setting task priorities before switching, 2) creating task queues, and 3) de-engaging tasks properly.

1. Pre-Setting Task Priorities

We sometimes shift tasks in a hurry and without thinking. We sometimes grapple with switching tasks with a certain level of confusion and anxiety. Lost switch time resulting from this can be avoided and bad decisions can be eliminated by setting task priorities in advance.

2. Creating Task Queues and In Advance of the Switch

When first beginning work on a task (engage) create task queues, or triggers, that will allow you to re-engage tasks faster and with more accuracy when you return.

3. De-engaging Tasks Properly

As you switch off (or de-engage) tasks, update the task queues, or triggers, that will allow you to re-engage the task faster and with more accuracy when you return.

Tasking-Under-the-Influence (TUI™) and Task Ghosting™ back

The fact is, when we attempt to multitask, we usually task switch poorly because we tend to just drop one task and start another. We do this without carefully leaving the task - or de-engaging (I use the word de-engage instead of dis-engage because I do not want this to be as easy as dis-engaging). To de-engage, we must note information like the task status and devise and update the task triggers for future re-engagement. Not de-engaging properly causes three things happen:

  • We lose our place and it will take longer to ramp up when we re-engage (return) to the task.
  • Residual memory from the previous task or tasks can impede cognitive thinking on the new task. I call this residual task memory condition Task Ghosting™ or tasking-under-the-influence (TUI™). TUI is more prevalent as the tasks become more complex and it can result in poor thinking, weak task memory, slow performance, and outright mistakes - sometimes catastrophic.
  • If we select, by accident or negligence, to work on the wrong task, we could be working 100% inefficiently since our effective value add productivity is zero.

What We Think Versus What We Do back

This brings us to the following three conclusions about Multitasking:

1. We "think" we are doing this when we attempt to multitask.

2. We actually "are" doing this when we attempt to multitask. Note the rocky task switches and residual tasking (TUI).

3. We "should be" doing this, engaging one task at a time (Advanced Multitasking), no TUI.

The Enormous Cost of Multitasking back

We can conclude that there are four potential harmful effects of Multitasking. These effects can result in poor task performance. They come both from research listed in the References below and from my own personal task performance and lack thereof. These four effects are:

  1. Lost task switching time results from the physiological time gap we experience each time we switch tasks This could cumulatively be ~5% of your work day.

  2. Poor task engagement results from the productivity lag of cognitive and memory ramp-up after a task switch, This could cumulatively be ~20% of your work day.

  3. Faulty task prioritization occurs from accidental or careless decisions to work on the wrong task. This could cumulatively be ~50% of your work day.

  4. Task performance errors happen when mistakes are made from incorrect task assumptions or facts. This could cumulatively be ~25% of your work day.

So, on any given day, you could actually be 100% ineffective. Research has shown that continued and heavy task switching, especially when the tasks are relatively complex in nature, can actually result in cognitive impairment - brain freeze. This impairment can result in poor thinking and general forgetfulness.

What is Advanced Multitasking? back

Advanced Multitasking is doing one task at a time - superbly well. To advanced multitask, you must properly engage a task when entering it and properly de-engage it when leaving. When you advanced multitask, you do not have to deal with Task Ghosting (or TUI). That is because you have properly de-engaged yourself from all the previous tasks. And since you have prioritized all of your tasks in advance, you always know what you need to do next and therefore, and by definition,you are always working on the right tasks, using less thinking to decide.

  • Prioritize tasks in advance

  • Validate priorities with manager, peers, employees, and family
  • Engage tasks properly - set them up for switching

  • De-engage tasks properly - update triggers for re-engagement (capture your effort)

Advanced Multitasking Tools back

Advanced Multitasking tools assume that you are working on one task at a time. Working on one task, the right task, and at the right time will make you more focused and more productive.

To advanced multitask, do the following:

  • Determine your life purpose. Answer the question, "What is most important" (WIMI)?
  • Framed by the answer, list and prioritize all your tasks, both personal and business.
  • Validate your priorities with your manager, peers, clients, employees, and family.
  • Create task queues (or triggers) when you engage them to help re-engage your tasks at a later time.
  • De-engage tasks properly.
  • Delete tasks when you can.
  • Delegate tasks when you can.
  • Transfer tasks when you can.
  • Shave tasks when you can.
  • Breathe once in a while, look up, take a walk! People actually stop breathing at their terminals over time!
  • Get feedback on your progress in real time and then apply it.
  • Start over.

About the DDTS - Reduce Task Loading back

Delete - Get rid of tasks that are not priorities and not important to you. Stop doing pet projects of little or no value. A task deleted is a task completed!

Delegate - Assign tasks to others that can be efficiently completed by others.

Transfer - Move tasks to those who should be responsible for them. Avoid doing the work of others.

Shave - Reduce the scope of your tasks whenever possible. Remove non-value-added steps.

You Have Four Brains ... So Who's In Charge? back

I was first introduced to the concept of multiple brains from Dr. Mark Waller. In his book, "The Dance of the Lion and the Unicorn" (2004), Dr. Waller describes three brains, their functions, purpose, and development.

These three brains include the Reptilian brain (automatic functionality like breathing and heart beating), the Limbic System (or Mammalian brain) for emotional thinking, and the Cerebral Cortex (prefrontal lobes or high-brain) for problem solving and analytical thinking. The Reptilian and Mammalian brains develop automatically. But the Cerebral Cortex develops over time - we are not hard-wired for this type of thinking.

The fourth brain represents our nervous system, or our nonconscious brain. Tapping into the emmense though power of the non-consious nervous system can result in leaps in perception and personal power.

Knowing about and mindfully accessing your four brains is extremely important in knowing developing a task list and setting task priorities. Typically, we use the wrong brain to prioritize our tasks by default. This can leads us to many problems. Just ask an ex-Governor of New York.

You want to use your high-level thinking (or Cerebral Cortex) or the power of your non-conscious nervous system when setting task priorities because these brains are neither acting in a primal (Reptilian) nor emotional manner (Mammalian).

Why Use Your Cerebral Cortex? back

The Hawthorne Studies in the late 20's revealed that if we observe something, it gets better.

In these groundbreaking studies, Western Electric's Hawthorne plant in Chicago conducted experiments in productivity using lighting. Each time the lighting was changed (up or down), productivity increased.

There were other conclusions from these studies, but the bottom line for me was this: if you observe it, it gets better.

For our productivity improvement, the challenge is to observe ourselves and do this through the eyes of our Cerebral Cortex, our Prefrontal Lobes, our higher self. But how do we consciously interact with and engage this higher-level thinking?

Micromeditation™ - Consider the Banana back

Meditation is a good way to access higher-level thinking. Try this simple exercise below. I call it MicroMeditation™. It takes only about 60 seconds, and if you are like me, that is about all the time you have for meditation. At the end of this meditation (visualization) exercise, answer the question in one word, "What you want?"

  1. Breathe in, exhale (10 seconds).

  2. Breathe in, exhale (10 seconds).

  3. Breathe in, visualize a banana (10 seconds).

  4. Breathe in, peel the banana (10 seconds).

  5. Breathe in, take a bite of the banana (10 seconds).

  6. Answer the question, "What do you want?"

Answer in hand, now list and prioritize all your tasks consistent with the answer. Everything you do, all your tasks, should fall under the answer to that question like an umbrella. If they do not, stop doing them.

Please repeat this exercise often, once a day if you can. Your answer will probably change over time.

Advanced Multitasking Model back

Now you have all the elements of Advanced Multitasking. And the Advanced Multitasking process becomes straight forward.

  1. Micromeditate or experience some silence or calm; contact your higher self and answer the question of what is most important to you.
  2. Answer in hand, list and prioritize all tasks, personal and business.
  3. Validate your priorities.
  4. Create task queues (or triggers) for these tasks.
  5. Engage, de-engage, and re-engage these prioritized tasks, as required.
  6. As you work on your tasks, continually update your queues (triggers) in case you must de-engage quickly.
  7. Observe yourself continually through your higher self. Visualize a banana.
  8. Perform DDTS regularly; remove tasks, and parts of tasks from your workload.
  9. Get feedback from your peers, employees, friends, manager, and family regularly. Apply it.
  10. Repeat this process ... forever.
  11. Do more, work less, be happy. Spend more time on what is important, meaningful.

The Advanced Multitasking (powertasking) process model is shown below.

Advanced Multitasking Model

About Planning, Tracking, and Metrics back

Planning

I highly recommend you plan, track your task quantity and completions, and measure your productivity weekly. From this information and process, you can see which tasks are carrying over from week to week and which are taking too much time or never completing.

There are a lot of planning systems out there. One of the best is the Franklin Day Planner® and the FranklinCovey® Planning System. I used this system for almost 10 years. It was great! But eventually I grew out of this system and created my own - a bit more flexible. See the download below (please email me for the password). For my planning system, I purchase Boorum & Pease®, sturdy journals, quad-ruled. I draw out my week by hand, each week, from scratch. Each 150-page book lasts about year comfortably. Please email me if you would like more information on this system.

Tracking

I track my time and tasks in a "Week-at-a-Glance" view. The diagram below shows the two-page view. The left page is reserved for notes and the right page is used for task tracking by the day of the week and task list. I use the same symbols as Franklin and every so often I through in a calendar for a month view. This is a very loose system on purpose - we need to be flexible. There are lots of nuances to me system - much more than we can go into here. But the idea is to track your tasks and be accountable for there completion.

Metrics

I suggest that you track your task completions (check marks), your task quantity, and your work hours per day at a minimum. Look it over weekly and watch what happens over time. You will be amazed.

Week-at-a-Glance Planner

To Multitask or not to Multitask, that is the question! back

You now have two choices:

Multitasking - Try doing more than one thing at a time - undisciplined task switching. Make a lot of mistakes, become ineffective, damage your brain, ultimately fail.

Advanced Multitasking - Do just one thing at a time "perfectly focused." Do a lot more, work a lot less, be very happy.

When Advanced Multitasking, you work on the right tasks, faster, with fewer errors, and have better work-life balance. This process will significantly improve your productivity, make more time for the important things in your life, and create endless possibilities for, of course, happiness.

If you really think about it, there is no down side to this. And best of all, it's free.

Download Some Free Power Tools back

Five-part YouTube Video (~40 minutes)


Using this Material back

Please these materials and download information and templates on this site for reference and/or presentation. I ask only you cite their origins. Thank you for your time and I hope this material is useful. Please let me know! Constructive criticism, comments, and questions are always welcome. You can email me at mike@mike-sanders.com or call 8a-6p, M-F PST at 714-615-5477. I present regularly on Advanced Multitasking concepts. Let me know if you would like me to present at your association, company, educational institution, dinner, or event. Another way to learn more is to purchase the book. A link to the Advanced Multitasking book on Amazon is below:

References are listed below. But do your own investigation and be amazed.


References and Suggested Reading back

Altmann, E. M. (2004). The preparation effect in task switching: Carryover of SOA. Memory & Cognition, 32, 153-163.

Altmann, E. M., & Gray, W. D. (2002). Forgetting to remember: the functional relationship of decay and interference. Psychological Science, 13, 27–33.

Altmann, E. M., & Trafton, J. G. (2002). Memory for goals: an activation-based model. Cognitive Science, 26, 39–83.

Anderson, J. R. (1993). Rules of the Mind. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderson, J. R.,& Lebiere,C.(Eds.). (1998). The atomic components of thought. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Anderson, P. (December 6, 2001). Multitasking is counterproductive. CNN.com. Retrieved on December 17, 2007 from http://archives.cnn.com/2001/CAREER/trends/08/05/multitasking.study/

Avery-Snell, J. (July, 2007). Is Multi-tasking Counterproductive? American Management Association - Moving Ahead. Retrieved from http://www.amanet.org/movingahead/editorial.cfm?Ed=542

Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working Memory. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Baddeley, A. D., & Scott, D. (1971). Short term forgetting in the absence of proactive interference. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 23, 275–283.

Clark, D., (1999). The Hawthorne Effect. Retrieved from http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/history/hawthorne.html on August 7, 2008.

Dictionary of Sociology (1998). The Hawthorne Studies. Retrieved from http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O88-Hawthornestudies.html.

Estes, W. K. (1955). Statistical theory of spontaneous recovery and regression. Psychological Review, 62, 145–154.

Fagot, C. D. (1994). Chronometric investigations of task switching. Ph.D. thesis, Psychology Department, University of California, San Diego.

Gopher, D., Armony, L., & Greenspan, Y. (2000). Switching tasks and attention policies. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129, 308-229.

King, S. K. (1990). Urban shaman. NY, NY: Fireside.

Kramer, A. F., Hahn, S.,& Gopher, D. (1999). Task coordination and aging: explorations of executive control processes in the task switching paradigm. Acta Psychologica, 101, 339–378.

Luce, R. D. (1986). Response times: their role in inferring elementary mental organization. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mayr, U. & Kliegl, R. (2000). Task-set switching and long-term memory retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, 1124-1140.

Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997a). EPIC - A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 1. Basic mechanisms. Psychological Review, 104, 3-65.

Meyer, D. E. & Kieras, D. E. (1997b). A computational theory of executive cognitive processes and multiple-task performance: Part 2. Accounts of psychological refractory-period phenomena. Psychological Review, 104, 749-791.

Monsell, S., Azuma, R., Eimer, M., Le Pelley, M., & Strafford, S. (1998, July). Does a prepared task switch require an extra (control) process between stimulus onset and response selection? Poster presented at the 18th International Symposium on Attention and Performance, Windsor Great Park, United Kingdom.

Monsell, S., Yeung, N., & Azuma, R. (2000). Reconfiguration of task-set: Is it easier to switch to the weaker task? Psychological Research, 63, 250-264.

Psychology Matters. (N.D.) Multitasking - Switching Costs - Subtle switching costs cut efficiency, raise risk. APA Online - Psychology Matters. Retrieved from http://www.psychologymatters.org/multitask0306.html.

Rogers, R. D. ,& Monsell, S. (1995). Costs of a predictable switch between simple cognitive tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 124, 207–231.

Rubenstein, J., Mayer, D, & Evans, J. (August 5, 2001). Is Multitasking more efficient? Shifting mental gears costs time, especially when shifting to less familiar tasks. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Retrieved from http://apa.org/releases/multitasking.html.

Smith, D. (2001). Multitasking undermines our efficiency, study suggests. Monitor on Psychology. 32 (9), October, 2001. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct01/multitask.html.

Sohn, M. -H., & Anderson, J. R. (2003). Stimulus related priming during task switching. Memory & Cognition, 31, 775-780.

Ba, M., Is Multitasking More Effective? Ezine @rticles. Retrieved from http://ezinearticles.com/?Is-Multitasking-More-Effective?&id=341597.

Waller, M. (2004). The Dance of the Lion and the Unicorn. Bloomington, Indiana, AuthorHouse.

Wazack, F., Homel, B., & Allport, A. (2003). Task-switching and long-term priming: Role of episodic stimulus-task bindings in task shift costs. Cognitive Psychology, 46, 361-413.

Wickelgren, W. A. (1977). Speed-accuracy tradeoff and information processing dynamics. Acta Psychologica, 41, 67–85.


Mike Sanders is an IT Manager and PMP. He has served as President of Southern California chapters of the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI) - mike@mike-sanders.com. Mike has taught and trained at the university, college, and industry levels. He is a regular speaker at PMI, STC, and UCI.

He has presented his Advanced Multitasking techniques at the PMI Inland Empire Chapter, PMI Los Angeles Chapter, PMI Orange County Chapter, IIBA Orange County, 2008 ILCEP Conference at San Diego's Naval Weapons Center, Orange County Chapter of the SQCAA, 2008 Southern Technology Conference (SoTeC), and regularly through the University of California Irvine's Project Management Certification Program.

Mike has been featured in PMI's PM Network Magazine where he discussed multitasking (Juggling Act - p. 44). The Advanced Multitasking book links is below. Mike's LinkedIn profile is at http://www.linkedin.com/in/mikesanders1.

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Comments, suggestions, and questions are always welcome!


© 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 - Mike Sanders - Last updated February 10, 2014.