Multitasking vs. Singular Focus: And the Winner Is?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Sander A. Flaum

Handling a multitude of mundane but necessary tasks at one sitting can often save time. But when it comes to dealing with critical issues, leaders need to focus singularly on an A execution.

Multitasking gained momentum in the early 1900s when academics conducted time-motion studies of manual laborers. The studies showed that doing more than one thing at a time boosted productivity and reduced fatigue. Today their theory is costing us big time, as the angst-driven compulsion to do two or ten things at once has entered what economists might call the "diminishing law of return" phase.

The New York Times recently reported that business-research firm Basex estimates the American economy loses $650 billion dollars a year to the cost of interruptions and recovery time in the workplace.

A winning example of the benefit of singular focus is Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Phelps became an Olympic legend this summer, winning an unprecedented eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games. His focus for each event was perfectly fixed on improving his time and outmaneuvering the competition. It's a simple strategy, but you have to love it. Focus on one thing and execute it exquisitely. That's the Phelps way and that's also the proven way to guarantee performance and maintain your leadership position.

So, taking a cue from Phelps, where today should you place your unbridled focus? What's on your to-do list right now? You have an opportunity to reach for a new personal best as of today. Will you go for it?

We all experience ups and downs. Michael Eisner, as Slate put it, didn't leave Disney honored with a gold watch ceremony, but the mogul's magic was instilled in the metrics. When Eisner took the helm in 1984, the company depended on Mickey Mouse licensing to keep the business going. During his time at Disney, revenue, stock price, and market value went up over 2000%. Disney's income soared from $294 million in 1984 to over $449 billion in 2004. Eisner locked himself onto one goal, with no distractions, to develop and hone Disney into the world leader in family entertainment—and it paid off big time. That singular focus was his winning Disney leadership formula.

No doubt, many things on your to-do list vie for your attention, but the items are not all of equal weight. Spend a bit of time analyzing your to-dos. Some things on the list may be urgent, but not more important; leadership is distinguished by tackling the important. Some tasks are extremely difficult. Others don’t even belong on your list. Cross those off or park them for later consideration. Put the highest priority challenge on top, stay extraordinarily focused on it and execute it perfectly before moving on to number two. Knock down the top of the list; don't stray. Most important, rewrite your to-do list daily and always keep it clearly in view.

Make sure that the #1 spot goes to the main concern. For example, if there's a key product that is under quota, are you going to focus on a cost-cutting move now? No! Concentrate on strategies and tactics for reaching and jumping the revenue curve. Devote your best strategic people to it and put them on a tight timeline to get it done and win.

Unclear priorities, unclear roles and responsibilities, worry, and indecision all kill productivity. Wrench those bad habits loose or you will really lose out. If you find yourself in crisis management mode juggling equally urgent issues, employ the divide and conquer strategy. Create a team for each solution and assign dedicated key people who are accountable to a time and events schedule set to solve one problem at a time. Yes, teams should function in parallel tracks and they should be in hyper-communication mode with each other every day. If you run out of people before you run out of problems, it's time to practice triage, sorting the dead from the gravely wounded from the mildly injured, metaphorically of course, unless you find, as we often do, that your crew is also a worthy triage target.

Speaking of triaging the team, we all make mistakes, and that includes hiring people who aren't right for the job. Terminating an employee who happens to be a good human being is one of the toughest tasks there is, because we can't help thinking with our hearts. If you know the person is wrong for the job but you put off letting him or her go, your inaction hurts the company and it damages your reputation among your senior staff (“Why hasn't she moved on this guy?”) Fix it quickly. Legendary CEO Jack Welch, after stepping down from GE, said that in looking back, the biggest mistakes he made had to do with procrastinating about terminating people.

Executing the simple stuff further down on the list is easy, but that won't prevent the stewing over the big issues. Don't let day after day go by in a blur of answering e-mails and phone calls, mistaking that for effectiveness. Multitasking isn't the path to greatness; it's the path to below average, because it causes you to expend valuable time on low value tasks. It never yields an A result, never feels satisfying, and in Olympian terms, it never brings home the gold.

Vow to do one thing exquisitely well today. The world depends on the ability of leaders to get positive outcomes. To realize the full magnitude of what you can achieve, manage your time by focusing on your key issues and challenges, both in your professional and personal life. History teaches us that great leaders are measured by the one or two amazing A s they earn, not the 20 Bs. It's the points of excellence that matter.

Sources:, "Taylorism" and the Principles of Scientific Management.
Daily News, "Amid All the Frenzy, Michael Phelps' Focus Proves Golden at Olympics," by Wayne Coffey, August 18, 2008.
SLATE Magazine, "How Did Michael Eisner Make Disney Profitable? Not with cartoons," by Edward Jay Epstein, April 18, 2005.
The New York Times, "A Quiet Departure for Eisner at Disney," by Laura Holson, September 26, 2005.
The New York Times, "Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don't Read This in Traffic," by Steve Lohr, March 25, 2007.

About the Author(s)

Sander A. Flaum is managing partner, Flaum Partners, Inc., and chairman of the Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham Graduate School of Business. He is coauthor, with his son Jonathon A. Flaum, of the book The 100-Mile Walk—A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership (AMACOM, 2006). Contact him at [email protected].