Why Multi-Tasking Doesn't Work (Reason Number 1 Trillion)

I’ve posted a lot off and on about multi-tasking. The other day I came across another superb article on why multi-tasking doesn’t work. Here are some of the key points and excerpts.

First, when we talk about multitasking, we are talking about paying attention. Sure, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. But you cannot pay attention to two things at once. The article quotes from the book Brain Rules:

Multitasking, when it comes to paying attention, is a myth. The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially, one at a time. At first that might sound confusing; at one level the brain does multitask. You can walk and talk at the same time. Your brain controls your heartbeat while you read a book. A pianist can play a piece with left hand and right hand simultaneously. Surely this is multitasking. But I am talking about the brain’s ability to pay attention… To put it bluntly, research shows that we can’t multitask. We are biologically incapable of processing attention-rich inputs simultaneously.

Second, one reason multi-tasking is so costly is because it prevents you from getting into the zone. (And, by the way, if you don’t see the need to get into the zone, your work is too easy.)

The reason we get into the zone in the first place is because of our limited bandwidth. When you are truly engaged in something there is not room to pay attention to anything else. The result is that you get beyond yourself, completely involved in what you are doing, which research has found is one of the key components of satisfaction in our work and lives. The article quotes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk about creative flow:

When you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new — as this man does [he is describing a composer in the act of writing music] — he doesn’t have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels or his problems at home. He can’t feel even that he’s hungry or tired, his body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness because he doesn’t have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration and at the same time to feel that he exists.

If you think “well, that’s important for someone like a composer, not me,” you are short-changing yourself.

Finally, it is true that there is something to be said for distractions and interruptions. They play a role in stimulating creativity and are simply “part of what makes us human.” You can’t — and shouldn’t — design your day to be completely free of interruptions. Interruptions are part of your job, and part of serving others; they also are a good opportunity for interaction and they make your day more interesting.

The issue is simply that you can’t make yourself available for interruptions all day long. You have to designate specific, focused time to plug away on your high-concentration tasks and get into the zone. If you continually try to mix high-concentration tasks with ongoing interruptibility and interaction, both will be undermined.

What Does a Nonprofit Do?

Defining the mission and primary outcome of a non-profit can be difficult. For there is no universal, specifically measurable bottom-line such as profit.

In his Managing the Nonprofit Organization, Peter Drucker actually provides a good measure of clarity to help overcome this challenge:

[The distinguishing feature common to nonprofits] is not that these institutions are “non-profit,” that is, that they are not businesses. It is also not that they are “non-governmental.” It is that they do something very different from either business or government. Business supplies, either goods or services. Government controls.

A business has has discharged its task when the customer buys the product, pays for it, and is satisfied with it. Government has discharged its function when its policies are effective. The “non-profit” institution neither supplies goods or services or controls. Its “product” is neither a pair of shoes nor an effective regulation. Its product is a changed human being. The non-profit institutions are human-change agents. Their “product” is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adult; a changed human life altogether.

The First Job of a Leader

From Peter Drucker’s Managing the Nonprofit Organization:

The most common question asked me by non-profit executives is: What are the qualities of a leader? The question seems to assume that leadership is something you learn in charm school. But it also assumes that leadership by itself is enough, that it’s an end. And that’s misleadership.

The leader who basically focuses on himself or herself is going to mislead. The three most charismatic leaders in this century inflicted more suffering on the human race than almost any other trio in history: Hitler, Stalin, Mao. What matters is not the leaders charisma. What matters is the leader’s mission.

Therefore, the first job of the leader is to think through and define the mission of the institution.

Marking Man's First Steps on the Moon: Why Did We Go?

Today is the anniversary of the first walk on the moon. In honor of that, here is a great segment from the fantastic book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, summarizing Kennedy in a 1962 speech on why we were going:

In the past sixteen months, as Kennedy’s vision had materialized, so had the clarity of his purpose. To those who questioned this audacious venture, he would now give his answer.

“Why choose this as our goal?” Kennedy asked his audience. “And they may well ask, Why climb the highest mountain? Why, thirty-five years ago, fly the Atlantic?”

“Why,” he added without missing a beat, “does Rice play Texas?”

The crowd sat quietly in the heat, fanning themselves, mopping their brows, as Kennedy spelled out the technological hurdles that would have to be cleared to build the Apollo spacecraft and its Saturn V booster. … The effort would spawn new jobs, new knowledge, new technology, Kennedy said, but ultimately, the first voyages to another world would be “in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not know what benefits await us.”

“We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things–not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” His voice rang with energy and confidence; his words soared above the sound of applause. “Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our abilities and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…”

Raising Taxes by a Certain Percentage Does Not Mean Tax Revenues Will Rise by the Same Percentage

A good analogy of this fact from the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Rangel and House Democrats are also banking on the idea that raising tax rates by 20% will raise 20% more tax revenue, but that’s like telling Wal-Mart it can raise prices by 20% and get 20% more profit. When taxes on the rich rise, their reported income tends to decline. The last time the top federal income tax rate was 50%, the richest 1% paid only about 25% of all income taxes. Today, at a 35% rate they pay nearly 40%.

Here's an Example of Efficiency Destroying Effectiveness

Following up on a post yesterday which made the point that too much of a concern for efficiency can undermine effectiveness, here is a tragic example where efficiency destroyed effectiveness.

Apparently there are some “lost tapes” which preserve the highest-quality raw feed from the moon landing in July 1969. Recently there were rumors that the tapes may have been found. But when NASA recently released some restored footage of the landing, the lost tapes were not among them.

Turns out that the tapes with this footage were most likely erased. Why? From an article on the moon landings on Fox News:

The original videos beamed to earth were stored on giant reels of tapes that each contained 15 minutes of video, along with 13 other channels of live data from the moon.

In the 1970s and 1980s, NASA had a shortage of the tapes and erased about 200,000 and reused them. That’s apparently what happened to the famous moon landing footage.

So in an effort to conserve tapes, the clearest footage of one of the most significant cultural achievements in history was accidentally erased.

Clearly the tapes were not erased on purpose. But that’s the damage often wreaked by the mindset of over-efficiency (even when justified by apparently significant factors, such as a shortage of tapes in this case): mistakes get made and critical, important things are often sacrificed in the charge.

Forty Years Ago Today We Took Off For the Moon

It is still incredible that we went to the moon — and returned our people safely home. This is an achievement to be celebrated both in itself and for what it represents — that we are a society that is willing to do big, bold things.

Here is a short recap and some photos (via Fox News):

On July 16, 1969, the Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew, capsule and lunar lander lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 9:32 a.m. EDT.

Millions of people watched the event live on television, including President Nixon in the Oval Office.

Twelve minutes later, the spacecraft entered orbit around the Earth. It circled our planet one and a half times, then got one last boost from the Saturn V’s third stage and was set off on its way to the moon.

Here are a few more random thoughts on the moon landing:

  1. President Kennedy’s initial charter is still a model of effective goal setting. It was bold, clear, specific, time-bound, and inspiring. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
  2. We should go back.
  3. We should go to Mars.
  4. Why not just go straight to Mars? I thought this over a few weeks ago and read some things online. Apparently, we will be more effective in getting to Mars if we go first to the moon again and establish it as a base along the way. I would imagine that it would also be good preparation for the much more difficult task of getting to Mars.
  5. Why should we do these things? My son asked me last night why we went to the moon. It was extra-easy to answer him, because he wants to be a “discovery person” when he grows up (his term). I said: “Because God made us in such a way that we want to discover new things and explore.” That’s enough justification. It’s like art. You don’t first say “what’s the use of this?” It is valuable and enriching in its own right. Bold explorations to the moon, Mars, and elsewhere are the same. Beyond that, there is much practical use because of all the new technologies that come out of these endeavors.
  6. Teach your kids about the moon landings. I’m going through Mission to the Moon by Alan Dyerwith my son. There is greater significance in doing this than simply celebrating this cultural achievement. It is also an opportunity to teach the value of doing hard things.

Overhead: The Misguided Metric of the Non-Profit World

Nancy Lublin, CEO of the non-profit Do Something, has a good column on overhead in the latest Fast Company. I’ve turned the article into the following series of questions and answers.

Why are people so concerned about overhead?

The first question many people ask me, truly, is, “How much do you spend on overhead?” That means expenses not directly related to a group’s programs, including office rent and the electric bill. Givers want to know that we’re not spending much money on this stuff, that most of their donations go to “program-related activity.”

The assumption is that when 99% of your expenses go to programs, you are fantastic. Not-for-profits proudly proclaim, “95% of our expenses go to programs fighting poverty!” as if they’re a gazillion times more effective than those that spend a pathetic 85%. Web sites that track not-for-profit financials perpetuate the “overhead is evil” myth by lauding groups that curtail it. Perhaps they think overhead is an espresso machine. Or a new jet. Or art on our walls. (Whoops! Then we’d be a bank.)

Why does overhead taken by itself lead to a distorted picture?

Low overhead doesn’t necessarily mean an organization is awesome at fighting poverty, or that its turnover is low and its people productive. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee that the group is spending wisely.

What are examples of good overhead expenditures?

Let’s take an example from the for-profit world, which isn’t so squeamish about overhead. According to Apple’s Q4 2008 report, 78% of its expenses were sales, general, and administrative — the corporate equivalent of overhead. Seventy-eight percent! Yet nobody flinches. Keep spending, Steve Jobs! Your products rock!


Here’s a case study from my own organization. Last year, we spent nearly $200,000 overhauling our Web site, from the content-management system to the architecture to the design. No one likes such expenses on the books: They smell like overhead. But our site no longer crashes, traffic has doubled, and we even won a Webby Award.

But some overhead is bad, right?

Obviously, not all overhead is good. I know one not-for-profit executive who flies only first class, stays in suites at the W, and has a car service schlep him around New York whenever he’s there. This guy has an overhead problem.

So what’s your main point? What should we be concerned about more than overhead?

My point: Stop obsessing about overhead. You can’t assess an organization on one statistic. Instead, focus on effectiveness. That’s a harder story to tell and a trickier thing to measure. But that effort is what everyone ultimately wants — a good investment.

In sum: There is indeed such a thing as bad overhead, and organizations should be as efficient as possible. But efficiency does not equal effectiveness. We should be concerned first and foremost about effectiveness. Focusing too much on “overhead expense” too easily rewards behaviors which may appear efficient on the surface but in actuality decrease effectiveness because they undermine the engines of growth and bold action.

GTD in 60 Seconds

From David Allen’s book Ready for Anything: 52 Productivity Principles for Work and Life:

I’ve given numerous “drive-by” radio and TV interviews, the type that give you about fifty-three seconds…. They’ve forced me to distill my message to the bare essentials. A typical question is, “David, what’s the one thing we do that gets in the way of being productive?” Here’s my answer:

“It’s not one thing but five things all wrapped together: People keep stuff in their head. They don’t decide what they need to do about stuff they know they need to do something about. They don’t organize action reminders and support materials in functional categories. They don’t maintain and review a complete and objective inventory of their commitments. Then they waste energy and burn out, allowing their busyness to be driven by what’s latest and loudest, hoping it’s the right thing to do but never feeling the relief that it is.”