Multitasking Reduces Productivity

Managing and prioritizing tasks in order of importance and urgency is a problem that is common to most professional. Everytime we prioritize and arrange our plans for the day or week and start working on them, we get requests flying in from our line managers and colleagues requiring urgent attention and before we know it, we are neck deep in unfinished tasks that we’re expected to complete as part of our primary role. The default way in which we cope with the pressure of multiple competing tasks is usually to start multitasking in order to get as much work completed in as little time as possible. Some people even take great pride in their multitasking skills and some job descriptions online still emphasise multitasking as an important skill. However, from an Agile perspective, I am sorry to tell you that multitasking is completely counter productive. I guess you are wondering why I think so? This article will discuss how Agile teams can increase team performance and task completion without multitasking.

Why Multitasking Is Not Agile

Everyone knows it is illegal to use a mobile phone while driving because the distractions and interfering with driver’s concentration might eventually result in a road accident. When talking over the phone we try to create a visual representation of what the other person is talking about, which takes our attention away from the road in front of us. Although we can do two things at the same time, the problem really is that the quality and efficiency of what we are trying to do reduces greatly when we start multitasking. Talking on the phone while driving causes distractions and reduces the driver’s focus on the road, because it is extremely difficult to switch back and forth from visualising the context of the phone conversation and driving. This, then, reduces their ability to notice the changing conditions on the road early enough to be able to react to them, thus increasing the possibility of an accident occurring. The essence of agility is not about how many tasks you are working on simultaneously, but about how fast your can complete the most important tasks in order to deliver value to your (or your company’s) bottom line.

Improving Time and Task Management with Agile

Eliminating multitasking is one of the important attributes of high-performance teams and when teams adopt the agile way of working, productivity hits the roof because of the visible improvement in time management and task completion. If you are wondering what Agile means, then I suggest you read my previous post Agile for Non-IT Teams. Every organisation aims to increase the productivity of its individuals and teams at the lowest possible cost and this article is aimed at educating non-IT teams about how agile can help reduce the wastage of time and resources usually associated with multitasking.

Limit Work-in-Progress is one of the task and flow management approaches behind the success of Agile in IT software teams, because it enables them to complete twice as much work in half the time. Having too many tasks without a structured way to prioritize and rank them in order of urgency, importance and how they impact the overall strategic goals is one of the reasons employees multitask.

In my experience of working in agile marketing teams, we have been able to manage the workload of each employee by agreeing on placing a limit on the number of task each individual is able to work on at any particular moment. This helps to reduce the psychological stress and burdens caused by excessive tasks being assigned to individuals, which in most cases takes them over the limit of what they are capable of completing within the given time frame. We adhered to the principles of “Stop starting, start finishing” by which we all agree as a team to complete each task we are working on before starting a new one. We were able to eliminate multitasking in the team by creating a Task board, also known as Kanban board, which helped us visualize the flow of work of each individual within the team and the dependencies and alignment required from others within the team to complete certain tasks. The board also assisted the Director of Marketing and the CMO to understand where external departments and agencies were causing hindrances to the overall performance of the team. There are a range of tools that can be used for time and task management, such as Kanbanize,Leankit and Kanbanchi, for which basic membership is free. I, personally, have been using Trello the most — below is a screen shot of its user interface.

Research by the American Psychological Association identified the existence of something called a cognitive switching cost, which happens when employees shift attention from one task to another. In simple terms, multitasking increases the amount of time required to complete a task and also increase the stress level of the individual completing the task, as well as their team members.

This article is not an exhaustive overview of how improve time management and task completion of teams and individuals, but a brief introduction to this hugely important issue. Some other questions you might want to consider in your quest to create high performing teams include:

  1. How do individuals and teams develop an agile mindset that encourages open communication and psychological safety?
  2. How do teams manage the workflow coming from external teams and how can they manage the duplication of tasks and resolution of conflicts more effectively?

About The Author

Femi Olajiga an Agile Marketing Coach who provides Agile marketing training workshops and coaching that helps CMO’s, Directors and Marketing Teams adopt agile marketing. He is also the author of the book: Lean-Agile Marketing: How to Become Agile and Deliver Marketing Success. Available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. He enables companies to become agile across marketing to drive business growth. For further information, connect or follow me LinkedIn, Twitter or visit my blog CXconversion.com.

If you’d like to learn how to develop an agile mindset or just generally learn more about Agile and Scrum in Non-IT Software teams or about Agile marketing specifically, consider reading the book above — Lean Agile Marketing: How to Become Agile and Deliver Marketing Success.