This is your brain. This is your brain on multi-tasking….

From time to time I spot and idea that is so great, so fundamental and so important that I…

Wait a minute, my email is coming in, let me just check to see….

Damn, that uh… sigh. How am I going to respond to this one. Hmm. Let me think for a second.

What? Cool. A new video about where Google is going. Let me load it up.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. This fantastic observation.

Oh, that’s the phone. Quick screen share …

I”m back. Where was I? Oh yeah.. This great idea.

What was it? Do you remember? Give me a second to get refocused.

Waitaminute…let me get that. It’s Phill.

Sorry, I’m back… just got interrupted by a phone call. But there you go…the whole morning and I still haven’t finished this damn blog posting.

Frustrated? You should be.  Think this is painful to read?  It’s painful  to write.

This is your brain. This is your brain on multitasking.

This was, I hope, a little humourous. It’s based in part on my actual morning. I left a lot of stuff out, because if I didn’t you wouldn’t have stayed this long (if you are still here) and heard the really important thing that I noticed yesterday.

I came across an article from another game changer, and I followed up on a tweet (twitter message).  The gentleman’s name was  Jeffrey Tang.  He has  blog called Beyond Freelancing ( — but don’t go there yet.  As the Buddhists say, stay in the moment.

The title of the blog (really, don’t go there yet) is “Why I’m cutting back on multi-tasking and why you should too!”. In the blog, Jeffrey discusses why he’s going to give on on multi-tasking. He claims (quite rightly) that there are three problems with multi-tasking.

1. It kills quality
2. It leads to burnout
2. It destroys productivity

He’s right. And it’s not just his opinion.

There’s a lot of proof.  In fact, I know better. I’m a practitioner of a process transformation method called  “Lean”. I’ve used it to help organizations make incredible gains in productivity, quality and reducing lead times.

But don’t take my word for it. There are a number of companies who have made Lean part of their culture. The current “poster child” for Lean is Toyota.  They’ve made Lean part of their culture.  It’s the major reason why Toyota made the leap from nowhere to leader in the auto industry. The power of Lean is that devastating.

Yes, you can whine about how cheap imports are and the whole China thing — but go to Japan.  It’s incredible expensive to live there.  Yet Toyota makes well priced, high quality cars.   How?  Lean.

Like many great ideas, Lean is very simple at it’s core. Deceptively so.  It changes the way we see our processes. In fact, the term Lean itself means “learn to see”. What do we see?


By cutting the waste we supercharge our processes. That one little principle revolutionized the whole area of process improvement.

Don’t confuse this with the old idea of “cutting the fat” from a process. That’s usually a mistaken idea that we can take out the “frills and nice to have things” like quality and attention to customers. Lean processes have exceptional quality and focus on customer needs. In fact, what Lean terms as waste is anything that does not serve a customer need.

What is this waste?  It’s everything that you doesn’t serve the end value created for the customer.

And our processes are full of waste.  So much that we don’t see it anymore.  I use one statistic from a Lean study that showed that the average amount of time spent creating value in a creative or administrative process was close to 5%.

The rest of the time was waste.

How can there be that much waste?  We simply don’t see it anymore.  How does Lean help us see it?  It labels it.

There are a number of types of waste that Lean identifies, but one in particular is the cost of interrupting  a process.  Every time a process is interrupted, you pay a penalty which Lean calls “setup time”.

If you think about it, you know what it is.  It’s that time that you spend switching gears, getting back up to speed, getting into the zone again.

What causes that waste?  Sometimes it’s interruptions that we can’t change.  Emergencies happen. Even though Lean says, don’t interrupt a process, it’s not always possible to screen out every interuption.  But we don’t have to do it voluntarily.  And we sure don’t have to brag about it.

It affects quality as well as time.  When we multitask things take longer, we get lost, we get bored, we do the same thing over and over, we make mistakes.

So why hide it? Why this big lie about multi-tasking being more efficient? I don’t know. Why does your mind love to wander? Why do we love to procrastinate? (Why did I just check my email instead of staying with this flow?)

One reason. We don’t spot the waste. But its there. In fact, we actually feel like we are busier when we pop from item to item. But it’s a lie. You can prove it.  Remember that 95% waste in many creative processes.  I didn’t make it up.  Lean analysis confirms it.   But, c’mon — you know it.

When push comes to shove and you have a big deadline, what do you do?  Multi-task? Not a chance.

You hunker down, get focused and plow through it. Who among us hasn’t experienced that. Have you ever gone to the office on a Saturday morning when no-one else is around and blasted through a dozen items that you couldn’t get done in the regular week? Weren’t you amazed at the productivity?

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried meditation. If you have, you know that the idea is to let your mind empty out and focus on nothing.  You know what happens when you try that.  Your mind immediately fills up with all kinds of thoughts. The mind loves to wander.

Our minds are undisciplined.

When I say undisciplined, I don’t mean lazy. Far from it. In fact, we are often trying to do too much. That’s why we fall into the trap of needing to feel busy all the time. We have become so action focused that we feel guilty if we take a moment to think.

Don’t believe me? Try this test. If you walk by and someone is on the phone, would you interrupt them? Nope. What if they were sitting there quietly, thinking? Nine times out of ten, you would interrupt. Oh, you might apologize, but you’d interrupt them.

Oh but you will say, I can’t tell what the person is thinking. She might be daydreaming. Oh yeah? You often can’t tell who someone is talking to on the phone. Nope. The real answer is we don’t value thought and reflection. We value activity.

In our current age where we are inundated with email, hyperlinks offer an unending stream of trails to follow, where the leisure society went the way of the flying car — we’ve adopted a form of cultural Attention Deficit Disorder — and we’ve made a virtue of it.

Whom the gods would make unproductive, they would first make unfocused.

In fact, one reason we let ourselves fall victim to the multi-task trap is that it actually feels good (at first).  When we get under pressure, we need to feel active.  Since we don’t value planning, we do that thing we value.  Activity.  Any activity.  Even if that activity is a waste.  As long as we look busy.  As long as we are working hard.

That’s the amazing thing.  We will sacrifice real productivity in favour of activity.

Over time, our brains have become wired to insist on constant action.   But like the meditator, who finds that the minute they sit down the random thoughts happen, you can train yourself to focus on one activity at a time.

It takes time, but after a while you get more and more times of focus. If you haven’t tried this, you should.

Why? It’s fabulous to experience that feeling of refreshment when you have a few minutes when your mind is not racing around from thought to thought. When you do come back to work, you are, at least for a while – tremendously focused and productive.

Even if you don’t meditate, you know the feeling that I’m talking about.  Ever been to the office when nobody is there, no interruptions?   If you have, you’ve probably experience  that “Saturday morning feeling”.  of blasting through things.  You come in rested, you want to get out and enjoy the day, so you focus and bang, bang, bang — you are productive.

You can believe me or not. I know it works. That’s why I do my blog on Saturday mornings when I’m not interrupted every 5 minutes.

Still don’t believe me?  Try both. If you can.  You might just find that when you try to focus, you can’t do it easily.  The  habit of multi-tasking is an addiction. It’s hard to break. Like the little voice in our head when we meditate, our shorter attention span makes it more and more difficult to stay focused.

So we claim we are really more productive when multi-tasking.  “Denial,” as my friend John Thorp points out, “is not a river in Egypt.” Nope.

When confronted with changing our habitual behaviour, we rationalize or go into denial. I’ll quit after this pack kept me smoking for 20 years. It’s only when I quit before the one I was about to smoke that I actually stopped.

Same thing with multi-tasking. I drank that Kool-Aid at one time. Then I discovered, by doing some experiments, that I was kidding myself.

P.S. The first part of this blog, where I let myself get interrupted took 3 hours. The second half took about 60 minutes including the edit.  This is my brain. This is my brain when it isn’t multi-tasking.

Thanks Jeffrey.

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