The ability to, and the act of, multitasking is sometimes seen as a good thing. However, it can be clearly demonstrated that multitasking is an inefficient process that can contribute to waste in any business.  Yellow Belt

First time reader note: Tools are self contained components of business wisdom applicable throughout your business.


Multitasking is the act of doing several different tasks more or less at once.

It’s very common in business for an individual or an organisation to be trying to work on a number of projects at once. This is sometimes thought of as a good thing to demonstrate that people are able to keep abreast of a lot of work. However, it’s easily shown that it is in fact quite a wasteful approach and should be frowned upon.

This Tool discusses issues around multitasking, how to recognise it and how to overcome its deficiencies.

We will use the term projects below to represent discrete bundles of work. However, this could easily be individual products being assembled in a manufacturing line like construction operations

The impact of multitasking

As a simple illustration of the impact of multitasking, consider the example of 4 projects (ABCD) each taking 4 months to complete when done individually.

If we multitask them by doing a month of each of them in turn as might be the case if we wanted them all to progress, we have;


Project A will be completed in month 13 under this scenario and all 4 are finished by month 16

 If we do one project at a time through to completion, we have;


So Project A is finished in month 4 and again all 4 are finished by month 16.

In fact, the multitasking approach will probably take longer because each switch from one project to another will probably be accompanied by wasted time for setup, swapping a project in and out and general human procrastination.

If we add in switching effects as “x”, multitasked projects look like;

AxBxCxDx AxBxCxDx AxBxCxDx AxBxCxD

There are 15 switch over periods in this scenario.

But, if we complete one project before doing another thus doing away with the multitasking, the picture is;


So there are only 3 switch over periods; a saving of 12 periods of wasted effort.

There are several types of multitasking;

A cost of multitasking

The longer period of time taken to complete multi-tasked projects can have a considerable financial impact.

Presumably a project is undertaken in order to provide an outcome that can be turned into income. If we multitask in the scenario above, the first project would become available 13 months after the start.  Alternatively if we did just project A to it’s completion, it would become available after 4 months. In the difference between 13 months and 4 months which is 9 months, we could be selling the income generated by Project A.  In other words, cashflow begins 9 months earlier in a non multi task project than it would in a multitasked one. If you multiply this effect by the number projects the business might have going at any point in time, the economic impact might be considerable.

If we look at this from another point of view, all the work done and resources consumed should be showing as Work-in-Progress (WIP) in your accounts.  Until the work is completed, you can not charge.  However, you have outlaid cash for wages and for other resources so your cash is being consumed by needless delays in your workflow.  WIP is a hidden an oft-times expensive drain on your cashflow.

Inc. magazine reports that the estimated cost of lost productivity due to multitasking is $450 billion, and the costs to the individual are also quite significant, including;

So, rather than multitasking being something to be admired, it is almost certainly going to contribute to extensive project delay and loss of income that might otherwise come if the projects are completed in a more timely fashion.

Discovering multitasking

The typical signs of a multitasking environment that you would see in a assembly line that wasn’t operating very well include;

 Multitasking is a difficult thing to avoid; it’s almost part of Human Nature to multitask even though it is an inefficient process.  Typical reasons for multitasking creeping into a system include the following;

Managing for multitasking

How you manage to avoid multitasking probably depends on the complexity of the projects that you undertake and the frequency you have new projects.  Since this will likely vary, there is no standard template for how you carry out a project.

For some professions like e.g. software programming, there are quite sophisticated techniques that have been developed to keep software developers focused on efficiently producing software products in a timely fashion and with few quality problems. If you want to read more about this, read up about techniques like agile, scrum and kanban.

For some businesses that undertake multiple projects at any one point in time that share the use of various resources, software planning tools like the Critical Path Method (CPM) can help to manage the flow of work.  Given that resource constraints may be more of a problem in a project planning process than time management, a technique like Critical Chain Project Management (CCPM) would be more appropriate in many cases (see Project Management Recipe)

However, many small businesses don’t require this level of sophistication.

As a manager, your job is to control the flow of work to the people carrying it out. The best way to achieve this is to feed them one task at a time in whatever you consider to be the priority order and have them complete that task before you feed them the next one. This is sometimes referred to as ‘gating’ in tasks (one goes through the gate at a time).  There are some simple software tools available to manage this process if your business needs this sort of workflow management.  One group is collectively known as kanban software (Kanban Tool)  and one of the easiest, free and most widely used Is named Trello.



Links to other resources for more learning.



Books ( try to rank them and give a synopsis to expedite learning)

Bulletin boards of common interest group


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