To accomplish more, multitask less–and get better results as a bonus

To accomplish more, multitask less–and get better results as a bonus

I remember about a decade ago when multitasking was the big buzzword in the business world. The company I worked for at the time even had some consultant in to guide management through a program of evaluating each employee and grading their ability to juggle a bunch of different tasks at once during the course of their day. I scored quite high, and that was a good thing for my professional career.

Fast forward to now times, and that ability won’t get me so far as I might have thought it would back then. Multitasking has fallen out of favor, and if you ask me, with good reason. But there are arguments on both sides of the issue, and I think a lot of it has to do with what, exactly, one defines as multitasking. For the musician–especially for the do-it-yourself variety–it might seem like multitasking is essential. For example, if you’re fronting your band by singing while playing rhythm guitar, then I suppose we could say you’re multitasking. I would argue instead that those two activities are just two components of your one main task: performing. OK; but what about drumming? By its very nature that’s multitasking. Four limbs all flailing wildly to play different components of the kit all at once. I say that’s not multitasking either. That’s just mastering all of the components of performing the one task which is laying down the beat for the band. A drummer is not dividing attention between multiple unrelated activities.

Two orange-haired clowns.
Leave the juggling to the pros while you concentrate on your work.

And further, I would make a clear distinction between multitasking and being a jack of all trades like I discussed in my Jack of all trades, master of none post a few days back. As I talk about in that post, I take pride in having been called a jack. But that’s not the same as multitasking. You can do 10 different things in order to earn the Jack label, but it’s how you do those things that defines, at least in my book, whether you’re multitasking or not.

For the sake of argument here, I define multitasking as simultaneously undertaking two unrelated activities. For instance, if you’re mixing your latest single while simultaneously filling out the band expense reports for the tax man, then you’re multitasking. And if you define multitasking that way, you can see how foolish and inefficient that would be. You’ll be far better off pouring your full attention into your mix, and only when you’re done or ready to take a true break from that, turn to your taxes and concentrate fully on that.

I suppose that’s a pretty silly example. Who would ever try to mix those two activities? OK; you might be right. But what if we exchange working on your taxes in that scenario with carrying on a texting conversation with your husband or wife who’s trying to do the taxes at home? That’s not such an off-the-wall scenario. You’re not doing the taxes, but you’re still multitasking by dividing your attention between your mix and your spouse. Be honest; in that situation, would you expect your best mixing work? Would you expect a happy spouse? I wouldn’t!

Sometimes you can’t avoid the problem though, can you? If you’ve got a heavy mixing session, and your spouse is doing the taxes, you may not be able to avoid the conflict. In that case, you’ll still be better off if you don’t do multitasking and instead do a bit of rapid task switching. That can look a lot like multitasking, but it isn’t. If you’re in the middle of a mix and you can’t ignore the text, then stop the mixing session, and deal with the text conversation. Give those taxes your full attention until the problem is resolved, and once it is, say, “I love you” to your spouse, and get back to work mixing. That’s still not ideal because you’ve left the mixing head space and it may take you a while to get back into it, but at least you’ll be giving it your full attention again. The equation seems easy: to do your best work, give it your best and full attention.

In an article for Time online called “Why multitasking is bad for you” by Dr. Cynthia Kubu and Andre Machado, the authors say,

The neuroscience is clear: We are wired to be mono-taskers. One study found that just 2.5% of people are able to multitask effectively. And when the rest of us attempt to do two complex activities simultaneously, it is simply an illusion.

2.5%. Those are not very good odds, friend. Think of it this way: if you are playing Black Jack and you’re dealt two face cards for a total of 20 points, and you’re feeling confident, you can ask for another card. You have an 8% chance of getting an Ace to hit 21 exactly. (Thanks to Tony Robbins for that analogy from his great book MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom.) That’s nearly four times higher than the chance that you’ll actually do your best work on anything while multitasking. So ask yourself, would you confidently declare, “Hit me” when you’re sitting on a 20 already? I suppose you might try it if you’re desperate enough for a big win, but I doubt any of you would do it consistently. Are you so desperate to get your work done that you’re willing to take 2.5% odds of doing it right by multitasking?

As musicians–especially musicians trying to build a business around our music–we can always find a million things that need to be done. You need to book the next show, approve that new t-shirt design, design the flier for the CD release party, and on and on. And many of us live by our mobile phones. We have to check that Twitter feed, see how many likes our last Facebook post has gotten, and so on. There’s nothing wrong with all of that, but if you’re trying to do it all at the same time, then you’re trying to multitask, and as the neurosience tells you, you’re only kidding yourself if you think you’re doing a bang-up job on all of that at once.

A far better idea is to get these things done one at a time. It’ll probably take less time in the end, and will almost certainly result in a better job done across the board.

Here’s another thing to think about related to multitasking: are you hiding behind your amazing multitasking abilities to mask the fact that you operate in a near state of completely unplanned chaos? How very like a musician! Think about it. In most cases, couldn’t you avoid multitasking by carefully planning your day? Get that t-shirt design squared away from noon to 1:00. Spend a half hour from 1:30 to 2:00 booking a few upcoming shows for the band. Take a block from 2:30 to 3:30 to deal with Facebook, Twitter, and your other socials. How many of us are really that organized about our daily activities? How much more could you accomplish each week if you planned your work and dealt with each task singularly during the time you blocked out for it? If your music and the business you’re trying to build around it really mean that much to you, then you owe it to yourself to 1) get organized about working on the business end, and 2) concentrate fully on every aspect of the business, just as you do on the music itself. Multitasking is like saying, “none of this junk is really important enough to concentrate on and do right.” If that’s not your attitude, then act like it–stop multitasking.

I’m not saying that this is an easy ask. Getting organized is really, really difficult. A disciplined approach to our day may not exactly be the strong suit of many of us musicians. But if you’re serious about your career, then you might consider getting seriously organized. Save the creativity and improvisation for the stage or the studio where it is appreciated and can make you a hero. Improvising your way through your business day is likely not helping you very much to succeed.

If you have a habit of multitasking, give yourself a good, hard look. Ask yourself whether you can really, truly say that you’re doing your best work at all times. If you can’t say that, then you owe it to yourself to try a different way. Concentrate singularly on the task at hand. When you’ve nailed that, move on to the next task. See for yourself whether you get more done and done better. I’m willing to bet you’ll like what you learn.

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