We know multi-tasking (MT) is so strongly supported by management that it is often a job requirement. Here are two that cross the spectrum from dispatcher to database administrator:

Courier Dispatcher/Customer Service Rep –

Job Duties:

Must be able to work in a fast-paced environment and be excellent at multitasking

Database Administrator –

Qualifications –

Demonstrated experience multitasking while maintaining a high attention to details in a fast-paced, fluid environment.


Multitasking Defined:

Few have attempted a succinct definition of MT, so let’s attempt one now:

… working on several deliverables (projects, assignments, proposals, tasks, etc.) at more-or-less the same time.

For example, you are working on several proposals and they are spread around your desk (or PC screen) and you type in some content on one, move a couple of paragraphs on another, do pricing calculations on a third, and so on.

The idea is that by working on several deliverables at more-or-less the same time, each “customer” (potential recipient) will get equal attention from the worker and a faster overall delivery of his/her proposal. An additional psychological benefit is that no “customer” will be told … “you’re in queue” or “it will be a while before we get to you” or “we’ll be starting your project in a week”, etc.

The worker will be working “smarter” by fulling using the time and resources available without putting-in extra hours after work, a common complaint. A “win-win” outcome to be sure, or at least, desired.

Single Tasking Defined:

To be fair, we must also (attempt) to define single tasking (ST). As with the MT example, you have several projects on your desk, or PC screen, but, only one is open; the others are closed and not to be worked-on. They are prioritized and they are to be worked-on and completed according to a priority list.

By definition, only one will start and it will be completed before the next is begun, and so on. Again, to be fair, we must let all prospective recipients know their position in the queue, and the status of the completion of the projects ahead of theirs. If EVER there were a “win-lose” proposition ST is it.

The Executive Shoot-out:

Is MT really a faster AND a better use of resources, delivering an overall better-to-much-better outcome? If so, by how much? And, with all prospective recipients able to see the progress being made on their projects, shouldn’t their overall level of satisfaction be much greater with MT? Is it really so? Who’s researched the outcomes? What’s the data?

Rather than start digging in the piles of management studies and dissertations, I propose a simple test: ST vs. MT, and you can do it yourself IF you have 15 minutes of free time. No? I didn’t think so either. So, I will do it for you.

Here’s the scenario:

  1. There are four projects and four clients,
  2. There will be four processes to complete each project, the same for each
  3. The time-to-deliver all projects will be measured
  4. The time-to-deliver each project will also be measured
  5. The timings will be compiled and results calculated


Here are the projects:

Enter the following words into the “in-box” of each client –

  • Client 1 gets “strategy”
  • Client 2 gets “design”
  • Client 3 gets “industry”
  • Client 4 gets “roadmap”

Here’s the process: copy one letter at a time into each client’s “in-box”.

The ST process begins with copying “strategy” letter by letter into Client 1’s in-box. When done, move onto Client 2 and copy “design” into that client’s in-box a letter at a time, and so on through Client 4. At the end of each “delivery” note and record the time. At the end of all deliveries, note and record the overall time.

The MT process begins with copying the first letter of “strategy” into Client 1’s in-box, then move onto Client 2’s in-box and copy the first letter of “design” into that in-box. And onto Client 3’s in-box, copy the first letter of “industry”, and so on. Measure the time and record it after the completion of each delivery, noting that some projects will finish early/out-of-sequence; for example, “design” will finish before “industry”. Note and record the overall completion time.

Summarize and compare the individual times for each delivery by ST and MT with a net time and a net improvement percentage.

And … here are the results:

IT company in New Jersey

Lessons to be learned:

  1. Overall, single-tasking outperformed multi-tasking by 545%; that’s a factor of5x! Is anybody listening? What’s more … this test couldn’t have been simpler, just copying letters from one location to another and recording the timing.

    Any real project will be (almost) infinitely more complicated/difficult. There will be unreliable data, unpredicted set-backs, confusing directions, poor quality raw materials, resources that were promised, but never delivered. What impact will that have on the consistency, speed of delivery and quality of the finished product/service? In a word: enormous.

  2. EVERY client in the multi-tasking test received their completed deliverable more than 49 sec.s AFTER the last client in the single-tasking test got theirs, despite the fact that except for client 1 (single task) EVERY MT client started BEFORE the single-task clients.

    Therefore, the notion that MT offers the customer/client a faster completion time, but, perhaps more importantly, the idea that he/she isn’t waiting in a line/queue, is being served immediately, if not instantly, dies when the full story, the excessive delays of MT, are revealed. Any psychological improvement is illusory.

  3. MT will directly affect QOS – Quality of Service. Whether the client is fully aware that by “avoiding a line”, he/she, nonetheless, gets a greatly diminished level of service, they will, ultimately realize that the overall turn-around time is much poorer, and will factor that into future decisions to do business with an organization (internal or external) that delivers results significantly slower than a competitor (who uses ST).
  4. In lines of business where time-to-delivery is important, adopting ST (where the market utilizes MT) may create a significant differentiator. Unlike other superficial “differentiators”, and, of course, price, dropping MT for ST is a policy initiative, and changing established policies is always very difficult for any organization.

    As a result, most competitors will react to this by pointing to everything else but, either not understanding they are losing to a fundamentally superior methodology, or unwilling to thoroughly evaluate and adopt the change.

In conclusion:

Fast delivery is highly valued and very difficult (or costly) to duplicate by competitors outside such a significant and fundamental process revamp, and will withstand price competition very effectively, as fast delivery often generates down-stream savings beyond any vendor price reductions or sweeteners.

Given the wide-spread popularity of multi-tasking, it’s hard to understand how management adopts such half-baked (and rarely tested) methodologies to the great disadvantage of their organizations. It is easy to see how costly such flights-of-fantasy would be, yet management adopts these almost folkloric “fixes” with little reliable research.

My call-to-action to management is: show me the money! Show me how XYZ really delivers against the claims. Show me how thoroughly XYZ has been evaluated … in actual use! Maybe then I’ll buy-in.