Have you been struggling to get your work done with multitasking but end up with poor results? Today’s podcast guest Dave Crenshaw, the author of the time management bestseller, The Myth of Multitasking, joins Penny Zenker to prove why multitasking is a myth and a costly one at that! Dave explains how multitasking delays results and also increases stress levels. Tune in to know the most effective way to productivity!
Listen to the podcast here:
Are You Really Multitasking Or Just Switch-Tasking? With Dave Crenshaw
Dave, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Penny. I’m excited to be here.
It’s great to have you. Your new book is coming out, version two of this topic around multitasking. I’m excited to hear how multitasking has changed in this work from home environment as we’re into the pandemic.
The fascinating thing about this is I already had a course on LinkedIn Learning called Time Management Working from Home. That had been there for 1 or 2 years and not many people had been taking it, and this happened, and now everybody took it. It became the number one course in 2020. Here’s the thing that we’re seeing with multitasking. A lot of companies, business owners, business leaders are afraid that the people that they sent to work at home are going to be unproductive, playing video games, whatever it is.
Do we have so little trust in people? What’s up with that?
I don’t know if it’s so much that but it’s the fear. It’s the uncertainty. Whenever something’s uncertain, we don’t quite know what’s going to happen with it. The real problem is in fact the opposite. It’s that people don’t have boundaries of any kind and they’re working long hours. A business leader might see that and go, “That’s great. We’re going to get a good deal.” That’s horrible because it’s not allowing people to have healthy balance. Their performance is degrading over time.
I hear that too. People are saying they don’t stop their day. They start way before they normally would start. They’re taking less time for themselves and that space that they need to stay sane.
Where the myth of multitasking comes into this is when you are constantly switching your attention, whether that’s someone sending you text messages or your kids coming in and asking for something, you are only getting partial work done the whole day. If that continues throughout the day, by the end of the day you go, “I was working hard. I’ve been working long hours, but I didn’t feel like I accomplished anything.”
They probably didn’t accomplish half as much. That’s why we have those days that we feel like we’re so productive. There are other days where we feel like death by a thousand paper cuts type of thing. It’s multitasking. It’s a distraction for us.
Part of the problem is that the word itself is terribly inaccurate. What is most often occurring is switch tasking. That’s something I define clearly in my book, which means you’re trying to perform multiple tasks that would require attention. When you do that, you’re not doing any of them completely. You’re just switching rapidly back and forth between all the tasks.
The three effects of multitasking: things take longer, you make more mistakes, and you increase your stress levels. Click To Tweet We have this tendency that when we’re multitasking, we feel like we’re getting more done. What’s up with that?
There have been a lot of studies of University of Utah. They found that people who pride themselves on multitasking are the least likely to be effective at it. Part of it is the human nature and having a blind spot and thinking if, “I’m good at something, I’m always good at something.” When we pride ourselves on it, we’re not humble enough to recognize that things need to change.
Do you think there’s an emotional block there? I’ve experienced this where I feel productive because I’m doing this. Emotionally, how do we get that in a different level? Logically, I know that to be true, but at the same time, emotionally, I’m driven to do it.
First, you have to get rid of that word busy. People were busy like it’s a badge of honor, but it’s a white flag of surrender. When you ask somebody, “How are you doing? Are you busy? Yeah. I’m busy.” We pride ourselves on being constantly moving as if that creates self-worth. When someone equates their self-worth to moving around a lot, they’re going to have a hard time giving up multitasking because it makes them feel important.
That’s it, it makes us feel important and therefore, we do it. We have to be able to shift that emotionally to see that we’re even more important when we give our full attention and focus to one thing at a time.
Our aim and motivation needs to be about the results that we’re getting. Not about how much time it took to get the results, not about how much stress we felt to get there, but did we do it? If we did it, what was the outcome of it? I am a terribly lazy person, Penny. Everything in my career has been built around trying to figure out how to do it with the least amount of effort possible, but I accomplish tremendous amounts of work. I just do it in very little time.
It’s funny that you say that because I often say that too that I’m lazy. Therefore, I find the most efficient ways to do things. I’ve heard many super productive people say that. It’s funny that there’s that driver there of wanting to be efficient to do the things that we want to do.
We work very hard at doing as little work possible. We do it in an ethical way. We try to find where are the rough edges, the corners, and the legitimate ethical shortcuts that we can take, where a lot of people think this is the way it’s supposed to be done. When you do that, you lock yourself into unproductive ways of doing stuff.
I want to come back to that point that you said, these ethical shortcuts. I’m doing a segment on that of finding out what are people’s shortcuts. If I had to ask you your number one shortcut, what is it?
Can I give you a concept rather than a specific execution? We can talk about execution. The concept that I look for is 2%, meaning a 2% increase in productivity. That doesn’t sound like very much, but a 2% increase in productivity equals an entire workweek every single year. What I’m looking for are little 2% things that add up to months out of my work time. Every time I do that, they stack on top of each other and get me a lot of time. If you want, I can talk about some specifics.
How do you approach that? This week you say, “I’m going to find another 2%.” What’s your process?
If we’re talking about the myth of multitasking, one of the biggest costs comes from the interruptions that are coming passively at us. In other words, things are interrupting us. First, I would look at my phone. I would look at my computer. Am I getting notifications that are popping up? Every time that happens, that switches my attention away to something else. Not only do I have the interruption, but I have to pay the recovery time to come back to the email or whatever it was I was focusing on. A lot of people might be in the position where that’s happening to them. Notifications from a variety of sources, cut those out. Instead, schedule time in your day to respond to those and look at them.
I want to highlight what you said about pay the recovery time. I like how you phrase that because it gets us into a different mindset. If we think that there’s a cost, there’s something that we have to pay for when we’re multitasking.
There’s a term in economics. It’s called switching costs. I talk about that a lot in the book. When we switched task, we pay micro switching costs. If I’m trying to type away at an email and then a text message comes in and I pick up my phone. I look at it and they ask me a question and I say, “The answer is 42.” I put the phone back and then, I’d have to do what? I have to go, “Where was I in this email?” There’s a tremendous amount of switching costs paid. There was a study out of Michigan State that a 2.8 second interruption results in the likelihood of mistakes doubling, the three second interruption increases. You think about the cost of that. I have to go back and clean up the mistakes I made because I was interrupted by something else while I was trying to perform something important.
We could think about that. What if that’s our brain surgeon that’s working on the surgery for our brain, do we want them to be interrupted? We need to think about our clients in that way too. It’s costing them as well.
There are three basic costs. There’s a fourth one that we can talk about later, but the three immediate costs are things take longer, you make more mistakes, and you increase your stress levels. You think about our world is filled with many stress relieving outlets. I can pick up my phone. I can play a game. I can go get a massage. I can go for a walk. I got many different options. Yet in the history of the world, has there ever been a more stressed-out group of people as us? The reason why it’s happening is because we’re attempting to multitask almost constantly.
Before the pandemic, the World Health Organization had declared stress a worldwide epidemic. Now, it’s off the charts. That’s interesting that multitasking is one of those drivers. Lately, I’ve been toying with this thought around the fact that we’re all control freaks. This idea of control, we exhaust ourselves trying to control the things that we can’t control. When it comes to the things that we can control, we are almost powerless because we‘ve exhausted our energy. Multitasking is one of those things that maybe we do because we’re trying to control. What’s your thought on that if you go a little deeper into the psychology there?
It’s not as much control in general, from my perspective, as it is control in the moment. We are addicted to the culture of now. The culture of now says, “If I need to do something, if I don’t do it now, it’s not going to get done. If it doesn’t get done now, I start to feel out of control personally.” What we want to transition to is the culture of when. The culture of when says, “I will get everything done. I can get everything that’s important done. I can respond to every single email. This is when I’m going to do it, not now, but at a time that’s more appropriate.” When you shift from the culture of now to the culture of when, you have far more control than you had before. You’re learning how to delay gratification a little bit.
We’re not very good at that.
No, but when you learn how to do it, you realize that you can get far more done in far less time. The average client who goes through one of my time management training programs gains an extra 40 hours per month. That’s an entire workweek every single month. I’ve said that to clients in the past. I’m like, “You’re going to get that much time.” They’re thinking at the back of their mind, “You are so full of it.” That’s an extreme statement. I have clients who call me back and they’re like, “Dave, it’s 3:00. I don’t know what to do with myself.” Wouldn’t that be a wonderful problem to have? You can have that problem if you break yourself of that cycle of constantly switching from task to task.
I’d like to go back now into your history. I understand that you came to productivity for your own personal needs. Let’s share with people a little bit about understanding why this is important and why you’re passionate about it?
As a psychologist, I was dealing with a lot of issues in my family life. I knew I was going to be a new father. I saw the pattern of my father who never learned how to focus his entire life. I was like, “This needs to change.” I went and saw a psychologist and he gave me two tests to verify it because he couldn’t believe the first result. He said words I’ll never forget. He said, “You are freaking off the charts, ADHD. If there were a fifth standard deviation, you’d be in it. I can say with 99.9% accuracy, you’ve got it.” That is my background. A lot of time management experts come from a place of perfection. They’ve always been in control. I come from the place of severe imperfection. I’ve had to learn how to create a system that was adapted for somebody who didn’t have much patience for perfect.
People come from different places and everybody’s got a different twist. My twist on productivity and time management is around energy management, how we think and thinking, and acting more strategically, which get us caught up in those things like perfection and procrastination.
I completely agree with that. I like to use the term focus management. I believe that time management in its classic sense is dead. Our challenge is focus management.
You’ve given us a lot of great topics to understand around the aspect of multitasking, going about your 2%, and what it’s costing us. Do you have any tools that you recommend? People want tools. Even though I know and you know that tools is the last step. You’ve got to get your thinking and your approach before you decide which tools. I did want to ask you about what tools do you find are quick wins for people that they can implement and be able to see quick results in their productivity?
I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help in that because of the very thing that you said. It’s more about principles than tools. I believe that the best tools that people have are the ones that are already in front of them, which is the calendar. Most people either do not use the calendar to its full extent or they’re using it improperly like having multiple calendars.
Let’s talk about that.
People who pride themselves on multitasking are the least likely to be effective at it. Click To Tweet Here’s the principle that I teach, which is there’s only one timeline. There’s only one you. You’re not Marty McFly where you can go into a time machine and suddenly there are two of you operating at the same space. Yet I see people in their calendar, double schedule or put appointments back-to-back as in our case. We had this scheduled and I said, “Some emergency came up.” I moved it back and left a buffer because I realized that it would be unrealistic for me to try and jump from one to the other that fast. Yet people are scheduling their days so tight and so much on top of each other. When you do that, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Simply using the calendar and looking at it and say, “Do I have breathing room? Have I created a realistic schedule for myself?” That visual representation of your time budget is incredibly powerful.
When you’re using your scheduling and planning yourself out, do you plan more so by week, by month? What’s your planning routine?
It’s years. I’m looking ahead as far as I can. Here’s the thing. When I have something that I want to do or need to do, I ask myself the question, “When is the latest this can be done?” That’s very different than what most people say because they’re addicted to the culture of now. Most people are only thinking of a two-week horizon in my experience. If you say, “Can you do this?” They go, “I can’t do it.” The reason why they’re saying they can’t do it is because they’re only looking fourteen days ahead. I look at it and go, “Can I do this six months from now? Can I do it a year from now? Am I still going to get the same result if I do this?” I’m a big fan of strategic procrastination. I push things off as far as reasonable. What that does is that leaves room in the short-term for the things that are truly emergencies and that crop up. For instance, I have an interview with a TV station in Philadelphia for the book. I would not have been able to do that if I had scheduled my entire day completely jam packed to the seams.
I see that as a key issue for people as well, all these back-to-back meetings. What do you recommend to the employee or team member who doesn’t make those meetings? They don’t have the direct control and they’re being booked back-to-back. What recommendations do you have for them that feel like they’re trapped and they don’t have any ability to change it?
If only there were books that could convince people that multitasking isn’t a good thing. The reason why I say that is because I did write the book with the intent of convincing the unconvinced. There are a couple of options. You could get the book. You could give it to people. You could do a training on it. If you don’t have the budget for it, that’s fine. You can go to this address. You go to DaveCrenshaw.com/exercise. Right there, you will find an exercise for free that you can do with people at work. It’s a little two-minute exercise that helps people see, “When we’re trying to do all this stuff at the same time, we’re ruining our own success.” That’s where I would come from is the standpoint of not talking to your boss and saying, “We need to stop doing this.” Instead, coming from the standpoint of the truth and helping them experience for themselves what is occurring when they schedule things like that.
I encourage people to do that. I always tell people that, “You have more influence than you think. If you say nothing, nothing will happen.” It’s all in how you approach it. If you go and you approach your boss, you buy them this book, you influence them in different ways with the exercise.
If I can add one more thing to that too, I like that you said that. What I would suggest is put it in terms of their self-interest. In other words, we know it stresses you out, but how does it make things better for them to not schedule as many meetings or not schedule them close to each other? Maybe it’s like, “I can do better work for you. I’d like to be able to perform better for you. It would be helpful if I could do this. Would you be okay with that?” In that way, you’re not trying to force your agenda. You’re trying to help them with the agenda you know they already have.
We’re already outside the box. We’re in the pandemic. Rules have been lifted or changed or removed. We’re doing things differently. Isn’t this a perfect time to step back as a team and to look at how you can do things differently and better?
It’s super helpful to have an overall policy discussion about working from home. We’re now almost a year into it. We can ask the question, “What is working and what hasn’t worked?” This brings up something that I cover in the new addition to The Myth of Multitasking, which is a channel discussion. In other words, we’re communicating with each other through all these different channels, text messages, email, Slack, phone calls, an endless array, but we don’t have a set of ground rules for when we should use which channel, and how long it’s appropriate to expect a response to each channel.
I talk about that as well. I talk about it like a communication plan. People know what’s going to be communicated where and to set expectations. That’s the key thing out of it is expectations. Coming back to your point about the now, I love that because it’s true. That’s where we’re focused. We think I have to answer now. If we can set some expectation and give people that flexibility and include those expectations so that they know that they have permission not to answer now then that will free them.
I’m a nerd. I love Batman. Batman, at least in the classic ‘60s show, he had the bat phone. Let’s designate a bat phone. That’s where the commissioner could call him and say, “Batman, we need you.” We have one channel that’s reserved for emergencies. We only ever use it not for impatiencies but emergencies. On the other side, we have the long-term method of communication. What’s something where it’s okay for us to take a week to respond to? You find out what’s in the middle and when are we using these channels?
It helps to bring it home for people when we can put it in those types of analogies. I wanted to ask you before we bring the session to a close. I ask every guest this and every guest gives me a slightly different answer. I find that interesting. What’s your definition of productivity and why?
Productivity for me, and I share the same definition as focus, is allocating your time and your resources toward things which are of greatest value. I also have another definition, which is the opposite of that, which is chaos. Chaos is allocating your time, your resources, your money toward things of variable value. This is where it trips people up. They feel that they’re being productive when sometimes things work out, when sometimes things are good, and then sometimes things are bad but in fact, that’s chaos. Chaos feeds on itself because it feels good. I’m getting some work done. Some nice things have turned out, but focus is strategic. Productivity is strategic. It’s saying, “I’m only going to devote my time and my effort to things that are going to have the highest value per hour, that are going to have the biggest payoff for my business.” That subtle distinction changes everything about someone’s business and careers.
We are simpatico in that context. It makes all the difference. It frees people. What they have a hard time understanding is that when you can focus on those things and have clarity that they’re the most important, it frees you to let go of the things that aren’t as important or accept that you’re not going to get perfection. If you delegate something and someone else does it, but they don’t do it to the quality standard that you do it, if it’s not in your most important things, so what?
This requires a skill that many have not yet learned, which is the ability to say no and say it a lot. Say it politely, but internally ruthlessly to say, “I am going to protect myself. I’m going to protect my time. I’m going to say no to this.” I’m only going to say yes to things that I know are of the highest value. This is something that I teach all the time, but I relearn it every year. I go, “I’ve been doing this, but I could do something that is going to require 50% less effort. I’m going to get pretty much the same thing. Why am I doing this thing that’s taking me double the time?” It’s constantly shaving off until I’m only left with what’s most valuable.
Do you have a process that helps you? Do you step back every week or every month to evaluate that? We’re always all learning it because it’s human nature to get caught up sometimes in all that’s going on.
I don’t have a formal process. There’s a formal process for somebody who’s getting started, which is you list out all the things that you do, and you determine the value per hour of each of those. In other words, how much would it cost me to replace that thing? How much would it cost me to hire someone to edit my book? I’m doing it. Should I be doing it? Can I hire someone else to do it? That’s a nice starting point for anyone. At this point in my career, the process is simply taking time off. I find that the act of stopping and I talk about this in a different book, The Power of Having Fun, but creating an Oasis where I step away from everything. When I step back, my thinking is much clearer because I got away from the craziness and the hectic part of it. I go, “I said no to this thing repeatedly over the last month. If I can keep saying no to it for a month, I could say no to it forever.” That’s the natural break.
It gives you a fresh look. Whereas when you’re in the day-to-day, it’s not fresh anymore.
You don’t have to take a big vacation to do that. I believe in lots of different sizes of oasis, a daily one, a weekly one, a monthly one. I don’t care who I’m talking to, how busy you are, how many jobs you’re doing, you can take a ten-minute break to do something fun and step away from it. You must. It’s critical for your success.
We pride ourselves on being constantly busy as if that creates self-worth. Click To Tweet My word of 2021 is joy. It goes along with that fun to look for, no matter what I’m doing, to find the people, the things, and the opportunities to create joy and to give joy. What’s your word of 2021?
It’s family. That’s the most important thing for me. It’s making sure that they’re taken care of, that I’m being a good husband to my wife and a good father to my children.
Thank you so much, Dave. Is there anything else that you want to say before we end up, a final point that you want to leave?
I mentioned earlier the three effects of switch tasking, things take longer, you make more mistakes, and you increase your stress levels, but there is a fourth effect. The fourth effect is that when you multitask on a human being, when you switch tasks on them, you’re communicating to them that they’re less important than whatever it is you’re doing. Even if you think you hear this and go, “That’s full of it, Dave. I can still be productive. I can still multitask,” you cannot avoid this fourth effect. When you pick up your phone and fob on someone, you snap them in favor on your phone, you’re communicating to them that they’re less important. The beautiful thing is if you’re someone who instead focuses on human beings, it’s an uncommon behavior these days. You communicate to someone that they are important and you build relationships where everyone else is damaging them. It’s a wonderful principle, just focus on human beings.
Thank you so much for being here and all that you’ve shared. You’ve added so much value and I’m sure there’s that much more in the new book as it’s coming out.
If you want to get the book, go to MultitaskBook.com. That’ll take you right there on Amazon.
Thank you so much for being here.
Thanks so much, Penny.
Thank you all for being here because you come back to this show. You can find the tips, the tricks and the strategies that are going to help you to work smarter. Thanks for being here. We’ll see you in the next episode.
- Dave Crenshaw
- Time Management Working from Home
- The Myth of Multitasking
- The Power of Having Fun