Does Multitasking Really Work?

Does Multitasking Really Work?


Picture it: It’s Tuesday morning. You’re at your desk reading and replying to emails, participating in a conference call and looking over the report you need for that afternoon’s department meeting. While you’re focused on those tasks, your boss stops by and says he needs a summary of the new product your company is rolling out at next week’s press conference. Oh, and can you have it to him in an hour? And have you decided on the art for the product’s logo — which has been sitting on your desk since Friday because you haven’t had a chance to look over it?

Sound familiar?

Most of us don’t give a second thought to multitasking. And it’s not just at work. How many of us can help with homework, make dinner, fold laundry, and maintain a semi-coherent conversation with our significant other at the same time? It’s just one of those things that’s second nature to us—yet for some reason, it seems to be more obvious at work. But no matter how many projects we’re doing at a given time, there are still those that take priority over others.

It’s taken me quite a bit of time to realize that I’m truly not the world’s best multitasker (there—my secret’s out). My office is as fast-paced and demanding as any other, and I spend many of my days cranking out several tasks simultaneously. But multitasking is not my favorite thing. It’s just too easy to transpose numbers, overlook glaring errors on documents, or completely forget to do something. When I do get in hard-core work mode and focus on the work at hand, I’m extremely productive—as long as I can power through the things I need to do. Interruptions, revisions, and added tasks all lend themselves to distracting me from the larger project. In a workplace culture that’s emphasizing quality over quantity more than ever, perhaps trying to accomplish several things at once (and not being able to give full attention to any of them) isn’t the best choice. Personally, I hate that frazzled, “What did I even accomplish today?” feeling I get when things are exceptionally busy in the office and I’m rushing around at top speed. When I’m working on my writing projects at home, I can set my own pace. I find I’m much more productive steadily working my way through a to-do list rather than scrambling to finish a number of things at work, to-do list or not. I get a much bigger feeling of accomplishment thinking back on everything I tackled when working on those projects rather than the day at the office that passed by in a blur.

So if juggling too many things at once has you feeling burned out and mentally scattered, try some the tips mentioned earlier to add time to your work schedule. You might also try making some bigger changes to your work style, as well, including:

Carve out time for your work. You might have to get creative with your schedule to fit in the necessary time the projects you’re currently working on. Try to get the smaller tasks out of the way first thing so you free up time for anything else your boss might ask you to do. You may have to come in early, stay later, take lunch at a different time, or flee your office space (whether it’s a room or a cubicle) for the sake of some quiet time, but it’s important to give the work you’re directly responsible for top priority.

Leave your desk at lunch. Here’s the funny thing about office life: if you’re at your desk, people assume you’re available. Your presence in your chair means that it’s okay for co-workers to stop by for a chat, or your boss will take this time to ask you to do “one more thing” for a project. Even if it’s your usual lunch time and your sandwich is sitting on your desk for all to see, or you’re clearly engrossed in a wicked game of Freecell, if your associates see you in your space, they could very well drop by. So go! Take your food outside or sit in the kitchen, or meet a friend from another department for a lunch date. Even if you’re only grabbing a quick fifteen minutes for yourself, leave the office before you get another project added to your stack.

Ask for help. Many companies are adopting a more “team-based” approach to projects, which could be a huge time-saver for everyone. If you’re working with other associates on a presentation or project, by all means meet with your teammates and divvy up the work so that it’s not all falling on one person. Split up the work according to everyone’s interests and skill sets and meet regularly to keep the rest of the team in the loop. This should avoid any last-minute panic attacks, all-night cram sessions, or trying to squeeze in some extra time to get the work out the door.

Stay organized. Stay on top of your own workload, appointment calendar, and other commitments so that you can plan the rest of your day accordingly. As long as you know what you need to get done, you can have a better idea of how much extra work you’re reasonably able to take on. Some folks thrive on doing two, three, four, or even five tasks at once, but unless they’re mindless activities, it’s very difficult to concentrate fully on that many things at the same time.

(Image courtesy of Helico under a Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution generic license.)


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Sara Hodon is a freelance writer, nonprofit program manager, and English instructor based in Northeast Pennsylvania.
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Discussion

  1. Gabriele Maidecchi on the 27th October

    As I often mention, multitasking is probably the only human activity in which you get worse at the more you do it.
    A video that changed my view on it drastically -> http://t.co/XXPUTl6
    Hope it’ll help you too.

  2. Marcie Lovett on the 27th October

    Congratulations on realizing that multitasking just doesn’t work! Studies show that people who attempt to do multiple things at the same time take more time to complete their work because they are constantly refocusing their attention. Not to mention the errors and feelings of “What the heck did I do today?” that you referred to. I think the hardest recommendation for some people will be leaving for lunch. You think you can just do one more thing, and before you know it, it’s 2:00 and you’ve inhaled your sandwich and don’t even remember eating it. Taking time for yourself is not only okay, it’s necessary, and it will help you be more productive when you return.

  3. Vernon on the 28th October

    Hi Sara,

    I work for my self (mostly) and find that my reason for multitasking is partly because I’m afraid of forgetting to work on something else. What I have found really useful is to keep a pad of notes beside me while I work on things, and if something else comes up, rather than actually trying to do both, I just jot down what I thought of and toss it into my inbox.

    I also find that one of the reasons why I multi-task is because I am just plain lazy – the thing you are meant to be working on isn’t that appealing and so you (or me anyway) start to work on the nicer thing at the same time. It’s a kind of avoidance tactic. The main way I deal with this is good old self discipline, but something I have been trying recently is setting a timer to be sure that I stick to my unpleasant tasks at least for a set period of time before tackling something more enjoyable.

  4. Dave Crenshaw on the 23rd May

    Multitasking does not work it has been proven scientifically by many research studies that the more we do it the more we get worse at it. To learn more about the effects of multitasking, take my free exercise at http://www.davecrenshaw.com/exercise

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