Do Project Managers Need to Multitask?

Multitasking in project management
Multitasking is a trending topic on LinkedIn right now. For the most part, it is agreed that multitasking is, contrary to the popular old belief, not such a good thing. Multitasking - defined as the act of performing more than one act simultaneously, switching from one task to another or performing two or more tasks in rapid succession - has now been proven by cognitive psychologists to be bad for productivity. If you think you’re good at multitasking, chances are you are actually just doing two or more things poorly. Instead, productivity experts recommend focusing, fully on one task at a time.

The trending article, How to avoid multitasking when you work from home, penned by the University of Texas’ Art Markman recommends assessing our working environment to ensure it is optimised for productivity and to avoid distractions. Once your work environment is set up to be distraction-free, Markman advises deciding what needs to get done first and sticking to a priorities-based approach as well as ditching screens in favour of pen and paper occasionally to give yourself a digital breather. All great pieces of advice!

The renewed interest, or disinterest, in #multitasking got us thinking about how this concept relates to our field, project management. Can project managers ever effectively multitask or do we agree that multitasking simply isn’t something those of us working in project management need in our daily work plans? Here are our thoughts on the matter…

1.While Project Managers need multiple skills, they don’t need to multitask

There are many varied attributes and competencies which make someone a great project manager. An excellent project manager will be an outstanding communicator; a listener: an agent of change; cool, calm and collected; ethical decision-makers and much more. They may also need to be trained in a particular project management methodology, such as PRINCE2 or Agile, depending on the position (although we think these ‘hard skills’ are generally less important than the ‘soft’ ones). Furthermore, if you are a project manager in the ‘social good’ field, you’ll need skills in political astuteness and a passion for helping others. Basically, all project managers must wear many different hats and perform various tasks on a daily basis. Despite the varied nature of project management, however, it’s important to distinguish between having loads of different things to do and needing to do all those various tasks at once.

Instead, project managers need the proper systems in place to manage those multiple tasks, productively. According to Northeastern University in the article Multitasking in Project Management, creating ‘keystone habits’, those which help us reorder our lives, is one way to avoid the multitasking trap. Next, split your day into shifts according to these core, keystone habits (work, structured exercise, volunteering, socialising, sleep etc.). In doing so, it can be useful to identify which parts of the day are most productive for you and scheduling your tasks in order of importance accordingly. Think of it as anchoring your time and optimising your day.

Sure, there’s no doubt that, from time to time, PMs will need to switch from one task to another. As a rule though, this way of working should be avoided.

2. Resist the urge to stagger deadlines, wherever possible

It may sound counterintuitive, but staggered deadlines don’t actually get a project done any quicker. This is due to a concept called Parkinson’s Law. As Cyril Northcote Parkinson penned in the ‘50s, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. To put that in simple terms, if I give a team member 7 days to complete a task, they will most likely complete it on the seventh day. It’s human nature to leave things to the last-minute. Sans the deadline, that same task could well have been finished in three or four days. It’s all about having trust in your teams’ ability.

Another downfall of a staggered deadline approach is that it encourages us to prioritise urgency over importance.

At least take these ideas into consideration upon planning your next big project. You may be surprised.

3. Multitasking isn’t always planned

Sometimes we unintentionally multitask by answering the phone, checking our emails or taking a quick look at a social media notification that’s popped up on our devices while attempting to complete an important task. To get that task done more productivity, eliminate distractions as much as possible. Blocking off some email- and phone-free time for a certain period of time each day, for example, can be invaluable. Just be sure to communicate when you will and won’t be available to colleagues and managers.

4. Eliminate needless tasks

Work allocation is often a challenge particularly for those of us who like “being in full control”. We often find ourselves answering emails during a teleconference or even participating in multiple calls at a single point in time. However, a project team is not working to its full effectiveness if each team member is not playing into their strengths and creating value. Where possible and appropriate, don’t be afraid to allocate tasks to others or even investigate ways some tasks can be automated by technology. Playing the hero by doing ‘everything’ yourself simply isn’t necessary.

Managing a project or programme is complex. There are so many hats to wear and a multitude of different skills a project manager will need to utilise. Despite that, it’s important to avoid the temptation to multitask. It’s proven, time and time again, that focusing on one task at a time will lead to greater productivity, period.