Multitasking – Fact or Fiction?

fact or fition

The term Multitasking became popular in the early days of computer programming. Operating systems were developed that made it possible for computers to process more than one thing at a time.

Multitasking, in a more general sense, refers to having multiple (programs, processes, tasks, threads) running at the same time. This is something that human beings can only aspire to do with the same effectiveness.

“Multitasking is an engineering strategy for making computers more efficient. Human beings are the slowest elements in a system.”

~ Ellen Ullman, American Computer Programmer & Author

In today’s busy world, multitasking has become the all too common buzzword. It has also become the excuse for everything that slips through the cracks. Juggling multiple tasks and responsibilities might ‘seem’ like the best way to get a lot done, but in fact, it very likely is getting one nowhere – FAST.

Technology has added to the growth, development and high expectations of people – in personal and business lives. Multitasking became a trait of which people started to believe they needed, were capable of and skilled at performing. We’ve heard the term used in a positive sense and not just for doing simple things like chewing gum while walking.

Some humans want to believe the ability to perform more than one valued task at a time qualifies as a superpower. If it was magically possible, it just might be.

With the popularity of the concept of multitasking, the term has found a home in both language and culture. It exists in languages such as German, Italian, Dutch, Danish and Norwegian.

Multitasking involves performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.

Multitasking in Action

distractionThere are specific occupations that attract those with an appreciated skill for multitasking. In these roles, competent multitaskers are able to differentiate themselves from the average employee. They have a high degree of efficiency in conducting multiple tasks concurrently.

In appropriate circumstances, multitasking is necessary, may even be mandatory, however, in the vast majority of business cases, it is often not the best route to take.  Some may argue that successful multitasking is actually not truly multitasking. It is a skill acquired with tremendous practice, experience, and even training. One very well accepted fact is that to successfully multitask, one must have developed exceptional coping abilities to work with constant interruption.

Multitasking works very well for:

  • Simple tasks. Talking on the phone, watching TV while ironing, dusting, folding laundry or vacuuming. I find this is where I multitask well. It allows me to combine pleasant and not so pleasant activities in functions where I may not be a perfectionist.
  • Waiting periods. Everyone spends a portion of their day waiting for something – both willingly and unwillingly – while trying to still remain attentive. Why not check emails, look at a text message, read the news, make a list while waiting for the coffee machine, a computer to boot up, on hold with customer service, or standing in a line up somewhere. Again, waiting does not require a high degree of focus.
  • Repetitive Actions. Listening to music or Audiobooks while doing rhythmic exercise, driving a car, or performing some form of recurring physical work may actually help pass the time in an agreeable way.

Many service-based occupations fully embrace multitasking when it is done well.

  • Greeting the Public. A truly talented Receptionist is able to greet both individuals on the phone as well as manage people in from of them; all the while ensuring everyone feels acknowledged, valued and served.
  • Fast Paced Transactional Roles. A Server carefully manages multiple and necessary activities, interacts with others and oversees a geographical area while guaranteeing that guests never feel neglected. This is using very high-functioning multitasking skills.
  • Highly Diverse Production Roles. The Chef who leads and oversees multiple activities that include many moving parts, producing multiple products of various temperatures meeting guidelines and timelines. No small task!

The concept of performing two or more tasks simultaneously, in a handful of environments, is extremely well regarded in safe circumstances. Never assume it will work well or be the best approach in every business activity.

 Multitasking can be used as a distraction from the real task at hand.

When asked in a job interview about your multitasking skills, think carefully before responding. Read on…..

 The Science Behind Multitasking

Studies have shown that it is impossible to completely focus on more than one task at a time. Much of recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t really perform tasks simultaneously. The human brain is only able to “switch” tasks. Different parts of our brain are required for different processes. Each time we move from one activity to another, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.

A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance  indicated that multitasking may, in fact, actually produce outcomes that are less efficient, effective or appropriate. This is especially noted for complicated or unfamiliar tasks. Since the human brain is shifting gears between tasks, results will take up more time and not actually save time in the completion process.

What may on the surface appear to be multitasking is simply moving attention from one task to another. Nothing is being done simultaneously. Various studies consistently demonstrate that participants are slower at completing tasks when they are asked continually switch between two or more tasks than when they remain focused on the same task.

Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, does take a toll on productivity. It should not be a surprise to note that rushing multiple tasks to reach deadlines creates a significant opportunity to produce human error, lesser quality and/or precision in the task. Depending on the task, this may or may not be a good thing.

In the human form, multitasking is actually Multi-switching.

Modern Day Challenges

multitaskingPsychologists have concluded that performing more than one task at time impacts a person’s ability to effectively perform cognitive (mental) processes. They have proven that the human mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Switching back and forth from one thing to another creates mental overload and will frequently produce catastrophe outcomes. Think about highly complex jobs such as air traffic control, computer programming, etc. and the potential for disasters to occur.

Technology, and specifically smartphones, have promoted the use of multitasking. The fallouts have made it necessary to introduce laws to protect oneself and others from ‘distraction’. Minor distraction may not be an overwhelming issue, however, multitasking with smartphones has caused some very serious problems. Bodily dangerous problems such as texting while driving, crossing streets while looking at phones, smashing into others, tripping and falling are just a few. The whole concept of driving to distraction now encompasses other things in the category, such as eating, drinking, etc.

Distraction is not limited to, the potential for serious physical danger, it also has the ability to create major communication problems. When someone is distracted while corresponding with another person, the opportunity to misunderstand and miscommunicate occurs. Sadly, it isn’t until it is too late before the error is discovered.

overloadSingle-Tasking = Increased Productivity & Stress Management

There are plenty of good reasons to start single-tasking and promote its value. Any time a human being performs the start/stop/start process, there are going to be consequences with errors, delays and performance being some of the main concerns.

Further studies showed the emotional impacts of multitasking when interrupted work leads to a full range of symptoms from psychological to physical.

  • In 2011, the University of California, San Francisco published a paper that showed how quickly shifting from one task to another can impacts short-term memory and result in increased anxiety.
  • Another study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, showed multi-switching is physically draining and energy sapping.
  • A study conducted at Stanford University showed that multitasking added stress that produced a negative impact on mood, motivation as well as productivity
  • Still, other studies indicated that the effects of multitasking showed creativity is often inhibited. When one devotes their attention to too many tasks at once, what is left in the working memory is far too little to allow for fresh ideas and truly creative concepts.

Multitasking can put greatness beyond reach.

 Multitasking Damages Your Brain And Career, New Studies Suggest

Multitasking and Learning

Whenever one works on a new task, there is always a learning component involved. When one is focused on a single project, they have the ability to absorb and retain the learning that takes place.

When multitasking, new information is filed away in the brain as a simple acquisition. The odds of this information being retained in a newly acquired ‘learned’ form is not great. The brain needs undivided attention, with a high concentration of activity, for longer-term memory breakthroughs.

Yes, some people can be content working with less deliberation with multiple programs or projects. They may be under the illusion that when they perform multiple tasks, they can actually give 100% to each task. Guess what? It’s not going to happen.

Productivity and multitasking are actually at odds with each other.

Managing Multitasking in the Workplace

distractionSo now we know that there is a detrimental impact on work when multitasking happens in a majority of circumstances. Expect there to be a  reduction in productivity that can be as much as 40%. Anticipate the opportunity of mental blocks to occur when someone stops and starts their work to switch tasks. And human error cannot be completely avoided.

What is the best solution to deal with employees who use a multitasking behavior?

  1. Make the effort to eliminate as many distractions as possible in the workplace.
  2. Try to provide some privacy for workers who perform complex roles that require focus.
  3. Do not present multitasking as something clever or admirable to staff. Resist the urge to encourage people to do it.
  4. Promote the merits of undivided attention and focus when completing tasks that require a high degree of accuracy.
  5. Do not allow ‘multitasking’ to be used as a form of procrastination.
  6. Praise employees who complete their work on time without interruption.

Does your business need to ask this question – Has multitasking become a necessity because the company is understaffed?

More Tasks = More Mistakes + Less Quality

Multitasking and Chunking

Still not convinced? Choosing to believe in the power of multitasking?  Is there an antidote or approach that will avoid the risks, challenges and possible harmful effect of multitasking?

Try ‘chunking’. Chunking can be a useful time management strategy that saves one from the disadvantages of multitasking / multi-switching.  The concept behind chunking is to set aside chunks of time to focus on one specific task at a time. Minimize interruptions. Group similar tasks together. Set up boundaries.

If one is to better manage the tendency to multitask, then limit the number of things to be juggled at any given time. Never accept more than two tasks and adequate timelines. Spend enough time on each task to get some kind of a positive result before switching to the next.

It is important to accept that it’s going to take time for the mind to adjust to any shift in focus. Each shift creates another need for the mind to re-focus. Yes, there will be a drain of time and energy, but that is the tradeoff when multitasking is treated as necessary. Completion times are going to be later than one may like – understand that multitasking was the choice that was initially made.

In Summary

A group of Stanford researchers revealed that one’s ability to manage memory and effectively switch from one job to another is not without its challenges. This is something I very much agree with and feel will be a hindrance.

As a professional search consultant, I know that quality is not going to be high with multitasking. I’ve learned that producing an excellent outcome is not going to happen with too many moving parts on one’s plate. Volume is never going to equal quality. That is why JKS Talent Network believes in making a commitment to delivering a first class solution and not accepting multiple concurrent searches.

jks talent networkNot every client wants to pay to be a ‘one of many’ search. And not every client deserves to be. Sure, the contingency volume search ‘deal’ may look attractive in the beginning but what happens in a tight market? Do bidding wars happen when a contingency recruiter is sending a candidate to multiple clients because there is no time to produce a customized solution?

Yes, there is a danger in overextending on multiple searches. Effectiveness can be compromised. Searches become low hanging fruit. Too many projects at the same time may mean taking what you can get. JKS Talent Network provides exclusivity to their clients and never sacrifices service, attention, focus or reputation.

The next time you find yourself multitasking and thinking you are going to be productive, take a quick assessment of the things you are trying to accomplish. Eliminate the distractions, move to a single focus, pay attention to priorities and provide quality delivery instead of the chaos of multi-switching.

Take the Multitasking Test. It is fun, interesting and will give you your results in the end. Note – can only be done on a laptop, desktop or touchpad.

Lab in the Wild

Multitasking can be addictive, confused with ADD and become a circus on two legs. It exists in theory, but not always in practice.

May I suggest that you rethink how to answer this question – “Can you tell me about your multitasking skills?”

Looking for a Search Partner who will put your needs at the top of the priority list? Let’s have a no-obligation conversation that helps you address your future – with no distraction.


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