You know what happens when you have too many windows open on your desktop?at best your computer’s response time is reduced to a crawl, at worst…crash! Your brain may react the same way to multitasking, according to “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching,” an August 2001 study. In clinical experiments, study groups were asked to complete a combination of tasks. Subjects who alternated between activities took substantially longer than those who tackled one job at a time, says David Meyer, a University of Michigan professor of psychology who is one of the study’s authors. Meyer estimates “switching-time costs” to be as high as 25 percent to 50 percent more per individual task, depending on its complexity and familiarity.
But with practice there is hope for improvement, Meyer says. “In order to be optimized for multitasking, you have to be able to willfully control your attention”?something that is emphasized in many meditative practices. Still, he warns, “no matter how hard you try, you will never be as good multitasking as you are concentrating on one [task].”
By its very nature, IT work requires multitasking. But what some see as a necessary evil, others see as an advantage. Rick Bauer, CIO of The Hill School, a prep school in Pottstown, Pa., uses multitasking as a cross-training tool. He actively encourages his team to balance core job responsibilities with other pursuits. A network administrator may double as a lecturer in a computer training course or take time to get down and dirty with new security innovations. On a larger scale, IT multitasking should be defined by a strategic planning process.
Diane Barbour, CIO of the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., incorporates her employees’ multitasking into her strategic plan. “We are working on a process here where all new projects and unanticipated work flows through a program management office [PMO],” she says. The PMO tracks the workload of every staffer to determine who has the bandwidth to take on new tasks. Barbour also sets well-defined goals for employees. “I make it clear to them when they are hired that they will be spending X percent [of time] on project A and Y percent on project B.”
Not all CIOs support this approach. Dale Tennison, CIO of GLT & Associates, a data mining company based in Hudson, Wis., defines IT multitasking as “a natural reaction to management’s inability to provide focus and direction.” Tennison’s correctives are project management discipline and ROI project analysis. The bottom line in multitasking, Bauer says, is that “saying no is as important as saying yes.”