Less is More

Posted on Jan 26, 2011 | 8 Comments

OK, admit it: You’re not just reading this blog right now. You’re probably also glancing at a few other applications on your desktop, maybe talking on the phone or perhaps even sitting in the middle of a meeting.

The latest issue of the McKinsey Quarterly has some advice for you: Stop it.

“Always on, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity and making us unhappy,” the piece declares.

While this warning is very timely in our highly interconnected world, authors Derek Dean and Caroline Webb note that it is not at all new. Their article cites Peter Drucker’s 1967 book The Effective Executive, which warned of the looming dangers of attention fragmentation that can result from multitasking.

“There was Mozart, of course,” Drucker wrote. “He could, it seems, work on several compositions at the same time, all of them masterpieces. But he is the only known exception. The other prolific composers of the first rank – Bach, for instance, Handel, or Haydn, or Verdi – composed one work at a time. They did not begin the next until they had finished the preceding one, or until they had stopped work on it for the time being and put it away in the drawer. Executives can hardly assume that they are ‘executive Mozarts.’”

To preserve maximum effectiveness, Drucker advised, executives actually needed to embed solutions such as carving out blocks of calendar time, ignoring the phone, and returning calls in short bursts once or twice a day.

Drucker understood 40 years ago what science is now proving. One study mentioned by Dean and Webb describes the delay in the brain’s ability to complete tasks if they’re attempted simultaneously. Another study also suggests that the practice of multitasking can actually cause anxiety and addictive behavior due to the repetitive release of dopamine, similar to what happens when one uses drugs.

So, how guilty are you of multitasking?


Image source: mcnellytorres.com


  1. Tweets that mention Less is More | The Drucker Exchange -- Topsy.com
    January 26, 2011

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Drucker Institute, Zia Sheikh, markreiswig, BaniContreras, Capital Metro and others. Capital Metro said: RT @DruckerInst: Does multitasking work FOR or AGAINST you? http://bit.ly/e5ff3g #PeterDrucker #effectiveness #timemanagement [...]

  2. JC Cabrales
    January 29, 2011

    I’m not sure, if brain studies mention that we use just between 4 to 7% of the real brain capacity, why we want to be limited? Why we can not be like Mozart ? In some point I think is just believe matter, I could be wrong but I rather to try me and get the best of me. Thanks

  3. Judie Forbes
    January 29, 2011

    This is a bad rap!

    Learining is multitasking. It includes attention to the many, often conflicting, mental tasks in response to whatever is heard or read.. We can’t turn off these multi-tasks because they are not distractions but different considerations to be weighed and built on:
    • Being clear about what was read or heard
    • Assessing credibility based on the source
    • Checking emotional response to assure it isn’t coloring the facts
    • Comparing to previous information
    • Wording questions or comments
    • Looking for new patterns, or confirmation or conflicts with existing ones.
    • Finding the places to add the information in current mental models
    • Determining whether more information is needed – what and how to get it
    • Planning new research
    • Formatting ways to share the new information and get feedback
    • Turning the ideas into actions

  4. Doyle Paden
    January 31, 2011

    Interesting! Personally, I’m not guilty at all about multi-tasking. Throughout my life working at various organizations—-specializing in building infrastructure— less would have been accomplished if I not had the skill to multi-task. I just had to learn over the years not to expect as much as I can accomplish from others…Their work habits and approaches are much differenft than mine. Experience and maturity certainly adds to one’s knowledge.

  5. Judie
    February 1, 2011

    A kindred spirit! I was about 3 when I learned that – but experience allows you to see many more patterns and options.

  6. Mike Grayson
    February 2, 2011

    The term multi-tasking is referring to performing more that one task at the same time. I certainly would not like to have heart surgery while the surgeon was catching up on email or texting his wife at the same time. I want the surgeon to focus on the task at hand.

    Multi-tasking can lead to chaos. Interruptions and distractions are the considered one of the deadliest threats facing flight crews. Airbus, go to great lengths to train their crews to not multi-task because it may “induce errors and inadvertent actions”.

    Dr. Drucker was saying that the effective executive must manage their time so that it is focused on the task at hand. He wasn’t saying that you couldn’t work on several projects at the same time, but it is important to give each one their own time and attention. Seems like a wise course of action.

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