The Productivity Myth: How Multitasking Is Killing Your Success

As product managers or leaders we are, by design, meant to be experts at multitasking. From juggling multiple projects simultaneously to responding to emails while on a conference call, multitasking has become synonymous with productivity. I’ve found working as a fractional CPO that in fact taking on so many tasks might not necessarily be the right ‘agile’ approach to getting products over the hill and released to market. Is the belief in multitasking a myth? How can we remain efficient whilst juggling so much as product managers, strategists or designers? 

The Illusion of Productivity
Multitasking creates an illusion of productivity. When we engage in multiple tasks at once, we feel as though we’re accomplishing more in a shorter amount of time. However, studies have shown that multitasking actually decreases efficiency and quality of work. A study conducted at Stanford University found that individuals who multitask are less able to filter out irrelevant information, organise their thoughts, and switch between tasks efficiently, leading to a decrease in overall performance.

Quality Over Quantity
Consider a scenario where a product manager is simultaneously drafting a project proposal while responding to client emails. While it may seem efficient to tackle both tasks at once, the quality of work is likely to suffer. The project proposal may lack the attention to detail it requires, resulting in overlooked errors or inconsistencies. Similarly, the responses to client emails may lack the thoughtfulness and thoroughness necessary to address their concerns effectively. In the end, the product manager may find themselves spending more time revising and correcting mistakes, negating any perceived time savings from multitasking. Establish the focus area and weight your project or task priorities accordingly and try to tackle each with the care and attention this process affords. Like that you’ll deliver more robust pieces of work, spend less time revisiting and iterating due to errors and in the end become more efficient.

The Brain’s Limitations
Our brains are not designed to handle multiple tasks simultaneously. When we multitask, our cognitive resources become divided, leading to mental fatigue and decreased performance. Think of it as trying to drive two cars at once – it’s simply not feasible to give both tasks your full attention. This cognitive overload can also have long-term effects on our ability to focus and concentrate, impacting our productivity in the future.

Real-World Examples
Take the example of a software development team working on a tight deadline. Instead of assigning each team member a specific task to focus on, the project manager decides to have everyone multitask, working on multiple features simultaneously. As a result, the team struggles to meet deadlines, with errors and bugs cropping up due to the lack of attention to detail. In contrast, when the team is allowed to focus on one task at a time, they are able to deliver high-quality work more efficiently, ultimately leading to greater success.

Multitasking is not the productivity panacea it’s often made out to be. As product managers, it’s essential to recognise the limitations of multitasking and prioritise quality over quantity. By focusing our attention and cognitive resources on one task at a time, we can achieve greater success and efficiency in our work. So the next time you’re tempted to multitask, remember: the myth of productivity lies not in doing more, but in doing one thing well.

Focus is a key strategy here. Our attention spans have become so reduced by the constant ‘need for speed’ that we feel under huge pressure to constantly and consistently deliver. But how many times have you rushed something out the door only to spend days or weeks revisiting the same work that should have been tied up or shipped some time ago? Spend time slowing down a little and allowing more quality and personal checks to be applied to your work (whatever it may be). If you’re a designer make sure you check copy, that you’ve used the correct components or libraries and that your file management and processes are robust. When you come to deliver a prototype or file to developers this extra time allocation will save you more in the long run.

There’s nothing wrong with multitasking but focus on the outcomes rather than solely the outputs!