The Case for Forsaking Workplace Multitasking

Jul 7th 2016
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In this era, we are all knowledge workers to greater or lesser degrees. Express delivery service workers, for example, rely on mobile computing to maintain efficiency and effectiveness throughout the day. A receptionist in the lobby of a multinational corporation or in a three-person accounting firm also has a variety of responsibilities – some one-time, most reoccurring, and many others for a limited duration.

Anyone who holds a position of responsibility, moreover, manages multiple priorities. From senior partners of the firm to first-day hires, everyone – throughout the course of a day, a week, a month, and a year – has a variety of responsibilities that need to be handled adroitly. That is simply the nature of accounting today. Unlike workers of 100 years ago, hardly anyone today focuses solely on one specific task repeatedly.

Effective Allocation of Resources
At any given time, approaching the variety of tasks we face requires at least a minimum capacity for time management, self-management, and effective allocation of resources. At no time, however, should such workplace skills be confused with the current, if ill-advised, phenomenon known as multitasking. And let’s be clear: Multitasking does not equal managing multiple priorities.

On the surface, multitasking appears to be an effective way to handle a plethora of issues that compete for your attention. It seems intuitive that if you can handle effectively both A and B concurrently, you are achieving a productivity gain, as well as notable time saving. The fallacy is believing that the human brain can easily double-up and triple-up on activities with no loss of focus, attention, or effectiveness.

Tens of thousands of years of human physiological development, however, as well as current studies, suggest that the human brain only offers its sharp attention in one direction at a time. Attempting to simultaneously offer one’s sharp attention in two directions results in a reverberating form of attention given to each activity with a predictable loss in productivity and mental acuity.

“Wait,” you might say. “Surely there are some activities for which it is OK to multitask.” Yes, there are. You’re not likely to fall off the couch while eating if you have the television on at the same time. The difference between eating and watching television, and, say, driving and speaking on a cellphone, is a huge order of magnitude. It’s easy enough to eat and watch a show, listen to music, talk to someone else, or even read if you pace your bites. Given that there is no heavy machinery in motion, the everyday act of eating while you engage in some other activity is a perfectly acceptable, low-level form of multitasking.

The Routine and Familiar
In the course of a workday, each of us multitasks several times, often without even thinking about it. If we traced our actions, we would see that for virtually all of the tasks that we executed effectively, we either stopped multitasking and focused on the task at hand or continued to multitask because we were so thoroughly familiar with what was required of us that applying our self wasn’t taxing.

The real risk of workplace multitasking is that, done often enough, we never quite retreat to that mental space in which we can offer our best concentration and, hence, our best work. Also, continually engaging in multitasking sends a strong message to your subconscious that this is the way it has to be if you are to succeed in your position, stay competitive, and proceed through the day.

When multitasking becomes an ingrained habit, in effect we are telling ourselves that we can’t make it any other way. We experience a loss in ability to muster the mental and emotional strength to focus on the task at hand. We miss out on benefits that come from practicing “the art of doing one thing at a time.”

As everyday practice, when repeated often enough – month after month, year after year – multitasking separates those who rise to the top and those who continually find themselves scrambling to keep pace.

One Thing at a Time
As you proceed throughout your day and workweek, mastering the art of doing one thing at a time is the most productive way to proceed. Occasionally, yes, you can multitask on those issues that represent the routine and familiar, and that carry little penalty for any lost time on the trail. It’s in your best interest, however, to forsake multitasking and its false promise as you pursue the multiple priorities that a person of your education, background, training, and level of authority is responsible for handling.

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