Multitasking and Conflict

Every few months one or more of my blogger friends writes about some new research about the effects of multitasking. Multitasking, the research invariably says, doesn't finish the work any faster. In fact, multitasking usually makes work take longer.

I don't think we need more research about the ill effects of multitasking. It doesn't surprise anyone to learn that multitasking is at best ineffective and at worst dysfunctional. Everybody knows it already. I think everybody has known it all along.

If everybody already knows that multitasking slows the work, and if study after study merely confirms what everybody already knows, why do people keep multitasking?

Suppose I'm working on six different tasks that I've committed to six different people. If I want to complete all of the tasks as soon as possible, I will prioritize them and do them one at a time in priority order. Then I can tell Andy, whose task I'm working on first, that I'll finish his task today. And I'll finish it today. Andy will be very happy.

But what will I tell Bonnie, whose task I have given second priority? I'll have to tell her that I haven't made progress on her task yet. I'll have to tell her that I won't even start her task until tomorrow. Bonnie won't like that. And I won't like that Bonnie won't like that.

And what about Francis, whose task I have prioritized sixth and won't start until some time next week? Francis will be very unhappy. Francis will be furious. And Francis knows ways to make me very unhappy. This will not do.

So what's a harried worker to do? Multitask! If I split my time among all six tasks, I get to tell all six people every day that I'm making progress on their important tasks. And I get to be sincere about that. And I get to avoid Bonnie's unhappiness and Francis's fury. Never mind that nobody will be satisfied until late next week. I'll deal with that next week. For now, multitasking gives me a way to placate all of the people who are making demands of me. Multitasking delays the day of reckoning.

This explains how multitasking can remain so popular even though everybody knows it slows the work. The real purpose of multitasking is not to finish work faster. The real purpose of multitasking is to avoid conflict.

And that's a tragedy, because multitasking does a lousy job of avoiding conflict. For one thing, our expectation of conflict is probably overblown. People are often more reasonable than we fear, as long as we keep them apprised of our priorities and plans. We reach for multitasking to solve a problem that often doesn't need solving. For another thing, multitasking doesn't avoid conflict but at best merely delays it. And by delaying everyone's satisfaction, multitasking often exacerbates conflict rather than reducing it.

If conflict is the problem, multitasking is a poor solution. A better solution would be twofold. First, improve your skill in negotiating expectations and commitments. This reduces the likelihood of conflict. Second, improve your skill in resolving conflicts. This reduces the cost of the conflicts you can't avoid. These are both enormous topics. But even a little improvement in these skills pays off far more than the ineffective and dysfunctional practice of multitasking.

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