The Multitasking Dilemma

. . . and rethink what you do with it. Does multitasking really get anything done?
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the August 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Ah, "multitasking"-the golden buzzword with almost mandatory inclusion in resumes and job descriptions alike. While it conjures visions of well-organized individuals juggling a multitude of responsibilities with ease, is it really all it's cracked up to be? Recent studies show that this once-touted ability may actually be detrimental to efficiency.

To find out for sure, we asked productivity specialist Mark Ellwood, founder of Pace Productivity Inc. in Toronto, to convince a chronic multitasker he could actually be more focused and effective by doing (gasp!) one thing at a time. Our guinea pig-entrepreneur Richard Laermer, founder and CEO of New York City's RLM Public Relations-has penned three books and is working on his next, Exposure Level; hosts the "Guerilla Consumer" segment on National Public Radio; and serves as board director for charity Stretched to the limit, Laermer swears by multitasking to keep up with his hectic schedule. Recognizing the multiple directions in which Laermer's life is pulled, Ellwood suggested he identify high-priority activities, carve out time for them every day and let nothing else interfere. These "A" priorities should be planned first. For instance, Laermer would never get to work on the book if he always allowed his business to take over, so Ellwood recommended he block out a certain amount of time each day (preferably an hour) to concentrate on writing: "By blocking time, one can prevent most, though not all, interruptions." During this time, Ellwood urged, Laermer should also separate himself from the pager he uses to send his daily 350-plus e-mails.

One week later, Laermer had finished a three-page outline for Exposure Level; an outline for the second chapter of his previous book, TrendSpotting (Perigee Books); and two brief proposals for business meetings. Considering he spent one day in strategy planning meetings as well as attending to other business (and spent Thanksgiving in Miami with his parents), Laermer figured he met about 60 to 70 percent of his goals.

"I'm definitely going to use [Ellwood's] technique to schedule things that are really important to me," Laermer reports. "I didn't have a lot of time with employees [after 9/11], so I spent individual time with each one." Although Laermer encountered some difficulty in making his one-hour writing block happen every day, Ellwood encouraged him to keep trying. "He was very calming and didn't let me get down," Laermer says. "It may have been coincidence, but the week preceding [our conversation], I had business development meetings that weren't working. By the end of this week, we signed a lot of deals."

One thing Laermer won't be adopting anytime soon is Ellwood's suggestion on technology. "Being on the phone is not as important to me as it is to Mark. But I answer the e-mail pager 24 hours a day," says Laermer, who manages most of his relationships via e-mail. Luckily, he's (literally) the world's fastest male typist, logging in at 225 wpm. Finding the experiment a success, Ellwood and Laermer walked away happy with the progress they made. "He's great," they both echoed. Looks like there's always time to make new friends.

Try these time-saving tips if multitasking doesn't work for you.
  • Create a to-do list with priorities.
  • Block out time for projects.
  • As you get distracted from a work project, make a rule that you are not allowed to move out of your chair, make a call, surf the Net, pick up a book, etc. until you return to your task.
  • Complete something. Set a very small task for yourself and finish it. Very small. Then set another one.

Source: Pace Productivity Inc.

More from Entrepreneur

Get heaping discounts to books you love delivered straight to your inbox. We’ll feature a different book each week and share exclusive deals you won’t find anywhere else.
Jumpstart Your Business. Entrepreneur Insider is your all-access pass to the skills, experts, and network you need to get your business off the ground—or take it to the next level.
Starting, buying, or growing your small business shouldn’t be hard. Guidant Financial works to make financing easy for current and aspiring small business owners by providing custom funding solutions, financing education, and more.

Latest on Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur Media, Inc. values your privacy. In order to understand how people use our site generally, and to create more valuable experiences for you, we may collect data about your use of this site (both directly and through our partners). By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to the use of that data. For more information on our data policies, please visit our Privacy Policy.