The Art of Doing More by Doing Less

Not long ago, the ability to multitask was a badge of honor. We’d often see it listed on job postings and resumes alike, supposedly as an indication that someone could handle a lot of different things at the same time. 

And then a global pandemic occurred, and we weren’t just multitasking our business projects – we found ourselves doing those tasks and managing home-schooling projects and planning for an uncertain re-opening.

Unfortunately for all us would-be multitaskers, we’ve since discovered multitasking is not a thing. Only about 2% of the population has the ability to do more than one thing at a time, according to David Strayer, director of the applied cognition lab at the University of Utah. The rest of us will definitely crash our cars if we try to text and drive. 

Texting and driving are bad, but what about the report we’re trying to write while answering messages and checking our email? Same general problem, but now it’s our workday crashing instead of our car. It turns out that juggling these three things at the same time makes all of them take around three times as long as they would have if we did one thing at a time. 

With uncertainty around re-opening our businesses and the possibility of having to close them again, how do we manage everything we need to keep in front of us?

Focused Effort > Multitasking

One of the reasons for this depressing equation is that our brains aren’t wired to instantly drop one thing and pick up another. It takes time for them to let go of old activity and process what’s now in front of them. 

This is called context switching, and it’s kind of like a ‘time tax’ we have to pay when we go from one activity to another. 

The more we move from one thing to another, the more time we lose to context switching. Our brains don’t get time to really dig into a task before we make them jump to something else, so we make very little progress no matter how long or how hard we work. 

We can tell we had a multitasking kind of day when we get up at the end of it and almost nothing is done, even though we worked like crazy all day long. 

How to Force Focus

Instead of this kind of busyness without accomplishment, we can use a simple tool called a Work in Progress (WIP) limit to force ourselves to focus on a tiny number of tasks until they’re done. Basically, WIP limits put a very low ceiling on how much we can do at any given time. 

For an individual, two is usually the right amount. That means if I need to answer emails, write a report, fill out a spreadsheet, prepare for a meeting with my direct report, and draft a presentation today, I pick the most important item from that list and tackle it until it’s done. If my brain needs a break from spreadsheets, maybe I’ll stop for a bit to answer emails, but then I’ll go right back to the spreadsheets. Spreadsheets + email = two items in progress, and that’s my WIP limit. I can’t start my presentation until at least one of them is finished. 

To be clear, nobody’s saying every day you can only do two things. The difference is how many things you do simultaneously.  

Individuals who use WIP limits crush the productivity of their multitasking counterparts. When we implement this idea of focus on a team, we see an almost magical jump in what they can accomplish. Faced with a huge influx of unplanned work during the pandemic, multitasking can’t help us. We can, however, use focusing tools like WIP limits to allow us to attack important tasks and deliver value to our customers.


Andrea can help your members take change from a challenge to a competitive advantage. Inquire about her availability for your next online or in-person event.