Multi-tasking, or just task switching?

March 8th, 2017

“Switching Costs” is a familiar term in the world of business economics!


Today’s blog is a repost is from Michael Figueroa, Assistant Director of Customer Services at SafeSourcing.

“Switching Costs” is a familiar term in the world of business economics, but now the term is being applied to personal tasking and efficiency. In almost any office environment, the ability to multi-task is seen as a standard requirement for any job, but the term itself is misleading. The way we perform activities is much more akin to task-switching than to performing multiple tasks simultaneously.

Most of us are incapable of talking on the phone while writing an email on a completely different topic at all, and those of us who can do both simultaneously will experience an extreme decrease in quality of performance in both tasks. What we really do when we “multi-task” is switch from one activity to another in rapid succession.  Just like we incur switching costs in efficiency when we switch our production parameters or a miscellaneous service provider, the brain will lose some of our processing capacity as it switches gears to deal with each new interruption.  A recent study done at Carnegie Mellon University tested the performance of participants completing manual computer related tasks when they were switching from one activity to another. In every case, the performance of the participants decreased with every unexpected change of task. The best performing participants however, were the ones that expected to be interrupted and were not, outperforming even the control group. But how can we use this idiosyncrasy of the brain to our advantage?

Anyone familiar with Parkinson’s Law understands the theory that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. However, what if the inverse was true? What if the less time we thought we had to complete our work, the smaller an increment we would use to complete it?

Slice up your tasks into manageable segments instead of dealing with every interruption immediately. For instance, don’t stop what you are doing immediately for every new email that arrives. Instead, set up an alert so that you only immediately respond to emergency messages, and set aside a ½ hour twice a day or however often is needed for only responding to emails. Minimize the number of times you have to task-switch during the day so that you can give your undivided attention and best performance to one activity at a time. Schedule your activities with flexibility for emergencies and your workday surprises will fit into your expectations of the day, where your brain will already have the framework in mind to deal with it.

At SafeSourcing we understand how many inputs you receive in your daily procurement related activities. Let us simplify the process by segmenting the flood of information you receive every day and help you find the best strategic fit for your sourcing needs.

We look forward to and appreciate your comments.

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