26 Aug 2019 19:38 IST

Superlative performance needs more than multi-tasking

A clear priority and an obsession of using it effectively is the key to excellence

Most of us understand the power of prioritisation in delivering exceptional performance. Some believe multi-tasking is the secret sauce of great performance. Every day, we watch the way different sets of people work — they either put in longer hours of hard work on various fronts, or focus on key priorities. However, they are often surprised or even confused, at why some people deliver exceptional performance while they do not.

Let us examine a few instances of multi-tasking, and simply defining focus as prioritisation and why it does not lead to superlative performance.

First has got to do with the human quest to reach and explore the South Pole. Way back in 1911, two teams were engaged in racing to the South Pole. One was led by the Royal British Navy Commander, Robert Falcon Scott, and another by the Norwegian, Ronald Amundsen. Months after arriving on the continent after having endured the Atlantic winter, both readied their teams for the long and tiring journey to the South Pole. Both knew that they had set out on this quest, but did not quite know where they were. In those days, there were no maps, no communication and, hence, no rescue. The biggest hurdle before they covered the 400-mile journey was a 10,000-foot climb up a treacherous mountain to a polar plateau.

Scott’s team had superior resources: a whopping £44,000 budget, whereas Amundsen had just £20,000. Scott had a crew of 69 versus Amundsen’s 19. Scott had multiple forms of transportation such as Siberian ponies, dogs, motor sledges, skis and man-hauling. Amundsen relied on just one means of transportation: Greenland dogs. Captain Scott also had a grander ship, 187 feet versus 128 feet that Amundsen used.

After 52 days, Amundsen’s team arrived within 52 miles of the South Pole. Two days later, they became the first in history to stand on the South Pole. They proudly planted the Norwegian flag and journeyed back to the base, crossing 1,600 miles. Scott and his team reached the pole 34 days later, only to find the Norwegian flag flying there. The team slogged homeward but a storm pinned them down their tents. There they would die, only 11 miles from the next depot of food and shelter.

Amundsen’s approach had both a clear priority (Greenland dogs) and an obsession with using them effectively. It is this combination, rather than multi-tasking or even merely underestimating focus as simply prioritising that helped superior performance. Multi-tasking brings about a “complexity trap” that demands enormous efforts in different directions.

Obsession, key to excellence

If we analyse this, we will understand that it is not multi-tasking or vast resources that help deliver superior performance. Amundsen was obsessed over obtaining superior dogs, rather than spending his energy on multiple means of travel. He also enlisted after a long persistence, the star dog driver, Sverre Hassel, to be part of his team. Scott struggled with co-ordinating his convoy all the way, and ended up moving as fast as the slowest method! Amundsen averaged 15 miles per day whereas Scott managed only 11.

In another study of 58,280 court cases before the judges in Milan, it was ascertained that the judges who handled many cases simultaneously took longer to complete them than those judges who handled them in sequence. The difference was stunning: Remember Alfred Hitchcock needed more than 70 shots to perfect the shower scene in his move, Psycho. James Dyson created over 5,000 prototypes to create his famous vacuum cleaner. So, obsession is key. After all, many of Apple’s products witnessed the same level of prioritisation plus obsession before they became flagship products.

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