Rock star Bruce Dickinson has weighed in against multitasking, taking a pop at what he regards as a cultural myth during a spoken-word tour.
At a 10 September gig in Oslo,  the Iron Maiden singer-songwriter, six-album solo artist, author, airline pilot, raconteur, fencer, TV presenter, radio host, professional beer-brewer and chairman of aircraft-maintenance firm Cardiff Aviation insisted that he is not a multitasker, telling his audience: “Well, I actually try and do things one thing at a time, ‘cause it’s all I can manage. I’ve discovered that if I try to do two things at a time – like, for example, eating with a knife and fork while at the same time trying to play chess – one of them has to suffer inevitably.
“So as simple as it may sound, just do whatever it is you’re doing. Do that, and then do something else. All this stuff about multitasking, it’s rubbish… absolute rubbish. Women cannot multitask. Men cannot multitask. But some people are better at going from one thing to the other thing, to the other thing, to the other thing – and back to the other thing, and everything else like that. But if they’re gonna be successful at that, they’re gonna do one thing at a time and change rapidly from one to the other. That’s not multitasking – that’s figuring out how to change rapidly from one thing to the other.”
However, perhaps even Dickinson’s hummingbird methodology has its limits. In a recent piece for The Conversation,  cognitive scientist Professor Jim Davies notes that ‘rapid task switching’ often deprives each task of its due attention.
“For example,” he writes, “when you answer texts while watching a movie, your attention flips from the movie to the text. You aren’t really paying attention [to] both at the same time. When you read a text, you miss part of the movie.” He also cites figures indicating that task interruptions cost the US economy $650 billion per year.
So, if multitasking is a myth and rapid task-switching unreliable, which techniques and strategies should busy leaders deploy to answer all the disparate calls on their attention?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I would agree that people can’t do two things at once – or, at any rate, only very few of us can. If you’ve ever tried to hold a coherent conversation with someone who is on their phone – whether they’re emailing or WhatsApping, or whatever – you will know exactly what I mean. You know that they’re not giving you their full attention, and you have no idea how much they’ve heard you. So it’s a totally unsatisfactory experience on all fronts.”
She notes: “mindfulness has emerged as a response to this very issue, which is essentially too much inattention to being in the moment. If we see someone at a meeting who is tapping away on their phone – as if they’re thinking, ‘Oh, this isn’t for me… I’m going to zone out’ – then we have to ask ourselves why we are permitting the arrangement of meetings at which people think they can be essentially elsewhere while the discussion is underway. Surely, if you are talking to a colleague – especially in a meeting – then they deserve your full and undivided attention.”
Cooper points out: “amid the competing demands on our time, one of the problems with email and phones is all the alerts and notifications that keep buzzing in to flag up new messages or voicemails. Their effect is to call us away from what we’re meant to be doing. Some recent research on Generation Z  pointed out that people in that demographic have become so attuned to phone alerts that their attention span has closed down to just eight seconds. Mindfulness is one effective way of training ourselves to fend off distractions and focus on the here and now.”
She adds: “While it may seem a big ask during busy times, a linear approach – focus, complete, move on; focus, complete, move on – is really the pattern of behaviour we want to achieve here. To-do lists are a simple and effective means of thrashing out priorities and thinking about in which order we should approach our tasks. There is something quite satisfying about ticking things off as we go.
“But if we are overburdened with demands to the extent that we are panicking, then we’re either a) being asked to fulfil an unreasonable amount of work, b) wasting time somewhere along the line with poor prioritisation, or c) failing to properly delegate responsibilities, and getting over-involved in areas that we should entrust to our staff.”
For further thoughts on time management, check out these learning resources from the Institute
Image of Bruce Dickinson courtesy of Yulia Grigoryeva, via Shutterstock