A Project Newsletter

Facilitating Projects


Collaborating to Accelerate Progress

Brought to you by Resource Alliance

Laura Cecil
Resource Advantage, Inc.

Ms. Cecil is an experienced project manager, facilitator and consultant.  Her experience crosses a wide array of disciplines including Human Resources, Marketing, Technology, Operations, and Strategy. She specializes in helping organizations establish and maintain effective Program Office groups. 


Resource Alliance is a cooperative venture between three companies - Resource Advantage, Inc., Diakon Consulting, Inc., and Chaosity LLC - who have joined forces to provide specialized collaborative consulting, training and facilitation services. 

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Volume I

Managing Multitasking

"To do two things at once is to do neither."   Publilius Syrus

Multitasking is a pervasive trend in the business community as well as our personal lives today.  We talk on cell phones while driving, we respond to emails while on conference calls, and we read the latest headlines on our Blackberries while riding the elevator. 

While many people juggle multiple tasks concurrently in hopes of achieving greater personal output in less time, studies have shown that is not necessarily the case.  As a facilitator, it is important to understand the downside of multitasking as well as how to manage it in a work session.


Research conducted at the Federal Aviation Administration and the University of Michigan found that doing two or more things at once can actually decrease efficiency and take extra time due to switching from one task to another. They identified two stages in multitasking: goal shifting and rule activation.  With goal shifting, you must first decide to do something else now instead of the task currently underway.  Then, you must activate the rules associated with the new task as you shift your focus. [1] These steps resulted in a 20-30% loss in the total time it took for subjects to complete two separate problems, when they switched back and forth mentally between the tasks. Ultimately, t his study found that the cost of multitasking (switching back and forth between tasks) increases with the complexity of tasks (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, August 2001).

This problem is what Drs. Larry Rosen and Michelle Weil, co-authors of TechnoStress: Coping With Technology @Work @Home @Play call "Multitasking Madness."  Their research on more than 25,000 people worldwide demonstrates that, over time, multitasking has more even more detrimental effects such as:

  • Difficulty concentrating for extended periods as thoughts of your next “to do” comes to mind while engaged in another activity.
  • Memory lapses as you start working on one thing and then realize you don’t remember what you wanted to do or say.
  • Inability to rest or relax as too many thoughts are buzzing in your head.
  • Increased anxiety, a sense of feeling overwhelmed by various demands, physical-mental burnout and depression.[2]

Interestingly, the word “multitask” was originally coined in the technical arena to describe, ”concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer,” [Webster].  However, our fast-paced society has adopted this term and applied it to ourselves.  And increasingly, the stigma of “not paying attention” during a meeting can be excused by a simple response of, “I was multi-tasking.  Can you repeat the question?”   When this happens, multitasking not only hinders the performance of individuals, but that of the group. 

In facilitated work sessions, participants who are interrupted by phone calls, emails, or other common multitasking culprits slow the entire group down.  The offending individuals must go through both goal shifting and rule activation before refocusing on the topic being discussed.  And, if it is a complex topic, we know the time shift takes longer, forcing the group to wait while key contributors to reengage.  Meanwhile, other participants may decide to mentally check out and focus on other issues thus compounding the problem.

As a facilitator, there several steps you can take to minimize the impact of multitasking.   

  • Start with the Ground Rules.  Clearly state that cell phones, pagers, etc. should only be used at breaks and laptops should only be used for note-taking or referencing documents related to the session.
  • Monitor the groups’ level of engagement.  If people seem distracted, take a short break to allow participants to return calls and emails so they may return and focus on the discussion in the room.
  • Perform a “round-robin” to ensure that all participants are engaged and in support of decisions as they are made.  When key decisions are made, go through the participant list one-by-one and request that the participant state their concurrence with the decision, or provide any feedback that might alter the decision. 

  • Consider holding group work sessions offsite to minimize distractions from the office.
  • Take into account other activities and events when setting the dates for a work session.  If a sales team has quotas to meet by the end of the month and your meeting is scheduled for the 29th, then expect multitasking behaviors.

Multitasking is a reality in our world today. When we are familiar with tasks, we can more easily shift from one to the next and back again. However, these task shifts happen at a time cost.  To maximize your personal efficiency, as well as a facilitated group’s productivity, it is important to manage multitasking behaviors.

[1] Drs. Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer, and Jeffrey Evans, in an article titled "Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching" in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. December 2001.

[2] "Inner Game of Work: Multitasking Madness” by Larry Rosen and Michelle Weil in Context Magazine Fall 1998 issue.

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Resource Alliance, 2005
A cooperative venture between Resource Advantage, Inc., Diakon Consulting, Inc. and Chaosity LLC

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