Project Multi-tasking: The Multi-tasking Fallacy

This week, I delivered the three seminars on Practical Project Management on a short speaking tour.  Some great questions came up.  One of my favourite touched on an old hobby horse of mine: Multi-tasking.

Managing Several Projects at the Same Time

The question was this: “How do I juggle managing of several projects at the same time?” I have been getting this question at talks, seminars and training sessions for many years and I can remember clearly how I first dealt with question many years ago.

Not a Programme Management Question

When I started training and speaking professionally, I had recently left a large consulting firm, where my team specialised in Programme Management.  Not surprisingly, therefore, I initially mis-heard the question as: “How do manage several projects together?” It’s a common mistake to hear in the question a topic you are so familiar with.  So my answer was: “Aha, what you need is not Project Management; you need Programme Management”

But the question was rarely about how to co-ordinate multiple projects – usually the questioner had been given responsibility for managing a number of projects and had to give time to the leadership of each.  Their problem was not about co-ordination as much as about managing their time.

A Time Management Question

There are tools and techniques from Programme Management that will help you to oversee a number of projects simultaneously, but fundamentally, the question I was being asked, frequently, was about time management: keeping on top of multiple responsibilities when each is demanding and fast moving.

The Multi-Tasking Fallacy

And this is where the Multi-Tasking Fallacy appears.  People often think the answer is to “Multi-task”.  In fact, human beings cannot multi-task; not when more than one task requires conscious consideration.  The best we can do is passively conduct one or two tasks on auto-pilot (walking and chewing gum, for example) while carrying out one mentally demanding task (like planning tomorrow’s activities).  Our brains do not allow us to carry our two mentally demanding tasks together.

What this means is that what appears to us as multi-tasking (like solving a staffing issue while reviewing the quality of a deliverable) is not.  What it is, is rapid switching, from one task to another.

Switching is Inefficient

The problem is that switching from one task to another introduces a delay; while our brain mentally powers-down from one activity and boots up the data for the next.  Therefore, the more often you switch, the more time you waste.

You really will get better work done – and more work – when you give yourself big, dedicated chunks of time to work on something.  Ideally, the chunk will be enough to finish the task.


This has a huge added benefit.  When we really focus on something, we can enter what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a Flow State , which he describes wonderfully in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  Here, we can lose yourself in the task and gain a sense of deep wellbeing and satisfaction.  Flow is one of the key elements in the rapidly emerging field of Positive Psychology.  I will be writing more on this in the future.

The “So what?”

When managing multiple projects, make dedicated time to focus on each; mentally, have one hat for each, and put on one hat at a time; give each project a good chunk of time – enough to make a real contribution; swap from project to project quickly enough to keep control of each.

Coda: Good Project Control

In a future blog,Cycle Times and the Monitor and Control Loop“, I look at how quickly you need to switch from one project to another.  I show why good project control requires you to visit each project frequently enough, and how to assess how frequently that is.


5 thoughts on “Project Multi-tasking: The Multi-tasking Fallacy

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      1. Mike Clayton Post author

        Ron – Thank you for this – I wish I’d seen your posts before I wrote mine; they are very aposite. I will be taking a look at the Time article you reccommend on “the Multi-tasking Generation”. It seems to me that the more we undersstand about the science behind project management, the better off we will be.

  2. Pingback: Cycle Times and the Monitor and Control Loop « Shift Happens!

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