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Should we multi task or single task with reduced ‘switching time’?

July 14, 2020

Just a few decades ago, hardly anyone was contactable via e mail until they reached office and the concept of text messages or hand held phones for that matter, were yet to become part of our collective reality. The good old land line with the rotary dial was the ‘go to’ device for instant communication.

With the introduction of smart phones and the ‘app ecosystem’, our daily lives have changed exponentially. Today you can literally spend the whole day with your smart phone lounging on your sofa, switching from one app to another, watch movies, play video games and basically take a break only to consume a meal (also conveniently delivered to your doorstep via an app) or to answer your biological needs. The apps are also designed in such a way that once you open them, you can literally scroll through the content ‘forever’ (thanks to ‘infinite scrolling’), not to mention the notifications that keep ‘screaming’ for your attention to make sure you never turn your eyes away from the screen.

As a result, we now live a life of constant distraction with ‘pseudo multi tasking’ the way of life. Studies done by Harvard psychologists Mathew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert show that we spend 47% of our time on things completely unrelated to the task at hand. People also check their e mail or IM every 6 minutes (Adam Gazzaley) and take 25 minutes on average to re focus on a task once concentration is broken (Deborah Bulcock – ‘Is it Better to multi task or single task’). As it turns out, we simply aren’t built for multi tasking and the jury is out on its long term effects on our mental health and cognitive abilities.

The question then is, rather than attempting to multi task; i.e. skip between half completed tasks, ‘A’. whether it would be more efficient to prioritize and complete a particular task at a time; i.e. ‘single task’ and ‘B’. reduce the ‘switching time’ between tasks in a similar vein to the concept of ‘SMED’.

SMED or – ‘Single Minute Exchange of Die’, which was popularized by the Lean Toyota Production System focuses on reducing the activities involved and time taken when switching from one particular product to another in the manufacturing line in order to speed up overall production. This includes activities that are carried out prior to and during the changeover.

At a very superficial level, when comparing this with our day to day activities, it means rather than multi tasking, one should entirely focus on prioritizing & completing one activity and reducing the time taken to commence the subsequent task by ensuring everything that is needed to carryout the task is in place; i.e. planning the most efficient way of carrying out the task (even the creation of a project plan, a project charter etc in the event the activity is large in scope). Usual distractions like notifications, e mails, phone calls etc should be better managed either by disabling them or attending to them once the task is completed.

Absolute focus on a single task at hand and reduced switching time between tasks should trump multi tasking every time.

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