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How to multi-task effectively — lessons from playing tennis with two balls

October 6, 2008
by Joe Bormel
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We all multi-task, that is, do more than one task at a time. If those two things are, say, riding as a passenger, alone, on a train, while doing email, then multi-tasking is great. Multitasking can be more productive than the alternative, and, for some of us, a great technology-enabled alternative to spending our time ‘less productively.’

If those two tasks are, say, driving an SUV, while conducting a stressful cell phone call, with that cell phone held to our ear by one of our ‘driving hands’, with four screaming children in the back, and driving up to a complicated intersection with lots of traffic and poor visibility, that’s obviously a different story as far as the appropriateness and impact of multi-tasking.

I see several SUVs like that daily, coming in the opposite direction. Scary.

Most of us agree with Hallowell

In Ned Hallowell’s recent book,

CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life, Ned summaries as follows, at the end of chapter 5:

When what you are doing is important, multitasking is a practice to be avoided. Just think of it as playing tennis with two balls.

Many of us either praise or vilify multitasking. We praise it for the real or perceived performance boost we enjoy. We vilify it especially

when others are rude to us in human communication. The multitasker is turning away from our interaction, 1:1 or a group meeting, or a teleconference (where participants are invisible to eachother). Or, the multitasker is

creating a hazard for all of us as in the SUV example above. Both situations are very common.

You might think these behaviors are critical for us to address as leaders and managers.

I like the tennis with two balls analogy. When the speed, gravity and elasticity of any of our tasks (i.e. one of the tennis balls) is sensitive, one task can and should take all of our attention.

The Human Moment


human moment is one such example, defined as people's physical presence, combined with their emotional and intellectual attention. Hallowell has

described this phenomena in HBR ten years ago:

... technological changes--mainly voice mail and e-mail--have made a lot of face-to-face interaction unnecessary. Face-to-face contact has also fallen victim to "virtuality"--many people work at home or are otherwise off-site. ...

The bottom line is that the strategic use of the human moment adds color to our lives and helps us build confidence and trust at work. We ignore it at our peril.

The other end of the spectrum is solitary desk work. I’m often, by necessity, working on multiple projects, because calendaring, reference content access (aka googling), and async messaging safely allow me and us to separate and freeze either or both of those tennis balls when concentration requires me to stop multitasking. Much of the movement to large monitors and/or multiple monitors seems to provide evidence that I have a lot of company juggling tasks in this way.

Are we, as leaders and managers, accountable for the quality of multitasking in our organizations?



T.Golden, you raise an interesting point, which is why we multitask, when it has has really bad consequences in relationships, efficiency and integrity of our work.

The obvious reason is personal, individual benefits. It's also why we do other, related, inadvisable things like driving over the speed limit.  (I like that example because it's nearly universal, based on the highways that I see!)

As I suspect you know, this has been described in detail in the safety literature. The term BTCU, or borderline tolerated condition of use, describes how people really use things, rather than how they're designed to be used, usually bordering on very unsafe.

I've inserted a slide from my 2005 HIMSS presentation on High Reliability Organizations that shows an adaption of Rene Amalberti's diagram of the Borderline Tolerated Condition of Use.  The bottom left corner describes how we plan for people to behave.  As you move to the top right, you start to see the spectrum of how almost everyone actually behaves.  I think people usually know when multitasking is unsafe or unwise; we/they try to find that BTCU, the illegal normal, just shy of unsafe.

I like the tennis ball analogy as well - it highlights the fact that human multitasking is really task switching. We can't do two non-trivial tasks at exactly the same time any more than we can hit two tennis balls on different paths at the same time. What we do is switch back and forth between the tasks, often without conscious thought. But just as in computer CPU task switching, this is an expensive process, with tear-down and start-up costs that immediately put a mutitasker at an efficiency disadvantage compared to the single-tasker.

If there is a lot of "wasted" time in one of the tasks (e.g., many too-large, standing meetings) then that efficiency deficit can be overcome and reversed. But as you point out, that comes with its own costs as well. It's unfortunate how seldom that other factors such as the "human moment" are taken into consideration when discussing multitasking or efficiency.

You're clearly making the point 'know your people.'

The other point that you've made before, Anthony, and Hallowell agrees with you, is 'know yourself.' That translates into 'find out what works for you', independent of any advice you get. And, by all means, delegate liberally, those tasks that you should.

as with most things, a one size fits all approach can't work here. some people can multitask better than others. As a manager, it's critical to identify who can and who can't, then adjust their workload and tasks appropriately.