You Don’t Do A Good Job At Multitasking Product Manager, Get Over It

by drjim on September 30, 2009

People Who Multitask Think That They Can Do It Well, But They Can't!  (c) - 2009

People Who Multitask Think That They Can Do It Well, But They Can’t! (c) – 2009

Too little time, too much to do. Does that adequately describe your product manger job? I don’t know about you, but often is the time that I’ve looked with envy at my peers who are great multitaskers and wished that I could be more like them. It turns out that I was wishing for the wrong thing – multitaskers actually do a lousy job at just about everything.

The Study

Ruth Pennenaker reports that some researchers at Stanford University have just completed a groundbreaking study on people who multitask. You know who you are – you’re talking on the phone even as you are answering emails and zipping off text messages on you iPhone all at the same time. Oh how I have so wanted to be you!

The researchers found that most persistent multitaskers actually performed badly in a variety of tasks that they were asked to do. As the researchers dove deeper to find out why the multitaskers were doing so badly, what they found was that they don’t do a very good job of focusing on what they are trying to do. This also means that they are much more likely to get distracted while they are trying to perform a task. On top of all this, the study showed that they are actually weaker than non-multitaskers at shifting between tasks and organizing the information that they collect.

Results Of The Study

My favorite part of the study is where the researchers discovered that people who are always multitasking are actually worse at multitasking than those of us who ordinarily don’t multitask!

When the study was started, the researchers started with the idea that multitaskers have some characteristic that makes them better at multitasking than regular folks. What they discovered is that multitaskers are just pretty much lousy at doing everything.

One of the researchers was quoted as saying “We kept looking for multitaskers’ advantages in this study. But we kept finding only disadvantages. We thought multitaskers were very much in control of information. It turns out, they were just getting it all confused.”

However, doesn’t it LOOK like multitaskers are always busy? Shouldn’t that mean that they must be getting more done than the rest of us who just can’t do that much all at the same time? It turns out that high multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy“. Simply put, sure they are doing things, but what they are working on more often than not really doesn’t matter.

A Personal Multitasking (Failure) Story

I firmly fall into the “not a good multasker” camp and I should know it. However, every once in awhile I try my hand at multitasking, generally with disastrous results. Allow me to share my most recent story:

I was late for a doctor’s appointment and yet I had a conference call that I needed to participate in (not just listen to). I jumped into the car, programmed the Garmin GPS system with the doctor’s office address, stuck my Blackberry headset in my ear, and set the Garmin on “mute” so that it wouldn’t interfere with my conference call.

As I hurtled down the highway in the far left lane at about 70 mph jabbering away in an animated conversation on the conference call, I happened to look over at the Garmin and noticed that it was signaling that I needed to be taking the exit that I was just about to pass by (remember that I had been smart enough to mute it so I had no warning). Oh, oh.

A non-multitasking person would have realized that (1) I had already gone too far past the exit to make it, (2) I was in the wrong lane to try to make the exit, (3) I was going too fast to make the exit. In my multitasking state, I realized none of this and I attempted to go for it.

I didn’t make it. I was going to fast and I was too far past the exit to have ever had any chance of making it. What I ended up doing was plowing headfirst into the aluminum guardrails which were anchored to solid 4″x4″ chunks of wood. I probably hit them going a good 40 mph despite having tried to stand on the breaks once I realized what was going to happen.

Thanks to seatbelts and airbags, I walked away without a scratch. However, the car was a total loss. Oh, and I got a $100+ ticket from the police for basically being a bad driver. I say once again – I can’t multitask!

Final Thoughts

Product managers who multitask will perform at a lower level than product managers who focus on one task at a time. Although this seems to fly in the face of everything that we’ve seen in our workplace (don’t multitaskers get all of the promotions?), you can’t argue with research results.

Should you try to convince your friends and peers who are multitaskers to stop doing it because it just doesn’t work? No. The core of the problem is that not only do multitaskers think they’re great at what they do; they’ve also convinced everybody else they’re good at it too.

Ultimately those of us who are not multitaskers will be able to show better results for how we’ve spent our time. If we can make sure that the rules of the game that we’re playing are all about results and not appearances, then the non-multitaskers will win every time.

Product managers who can focus on one task at a time and do it well instead of trying to do multiple tasks at the same time poorly will have have found yet another way that great product managers make their product(s) fantastically successful.

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

If you had the choice of being a product manager at either Yahoo or Google, which company would you choose? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of us would choose to work at Google.

However, it turns out that we might be making the wrong decision. In the battle for capturing viewers for financial information, the Yahoo product managers are winning the battle hands down…

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