The Myth of Multitasking

multitaskingMultitasking has become a nearly ubiquitous term on résumés and cover letters and in job interviews and performance reviews. It’s even become a prerequisite for many job seekers and an unstated requirement for employees facing the pressures of a reduced workforce. But is multitasking all it’s cracked up to be?

The basic thought behind placing a positive emphasis on multitasking in the workplace is that the ability to do more than one thing at a time is a boon to productivity – supposedly. Most employers assume that people who are great at multitasking are effective and productive individuals.

But, experts actually believe that when people multitask, they are really just switching their attention back and forth from one task to another, not really focusing on either one. The problem with switching back and forth between projects is that you’re not really allowing your brain to focus on one particular task at any given time. Your attention is constantly being diverted back and forth between tasks. In fact, some studies show that multitasking actually makes projects take 50% longer to complete and can cause up to 50% more errors than single-tasking. Which means that multitasking may actually decrease productivity and work quality rather than boosting it.

To give you an example of how multitasking can affect workplace efficiency, think about a time when you were with your significant other, a parent, or even just a good friend. You’re in the middle of a conversation when their cell phone rings or they get a text message. They stop you mid sentence to answer the call or reply back, but they tell you to keep going, they’re listening. You keep talking only to have them return back to the conversation to ask, “OK, what were you saying?” Chances are, you had to recap part of the conversation to figure out where they stopped listening. You lost focus and you know they lost focus when they switched from listening to you to answering the phone.

Working on one project from beginning to end without interruptions would be nice, but in the real world, that’s rarely an option. There are too many distractions to pull you from one task to another. From phone calls to impromptu meetings to incoming e-mails, it’s easy to lose focus on the task at hand. And, that can cost you both time and productivity.

The next time you find yourself working on two or three projects at one time, try allotting a certain amount of time for each project without interruptions. Turn off your e-mail notification to keep from being distracted with incoming messages, put your phone on silent, and set a sign on your desk to let others know you’re working on a project and will be done at a specified time. These small changes in your daily routine can help you stay focused and increase your work productivity.

The myth of multitasking has many people thinking that it’s a great skill, but really it can be more of a hindrance than a help. So, pay careful attention to your own work habits to see how multitasking affects you, and have a discussion with your team to talk about workplace distractions and norms like multitasking that may create unneeded inefficiency in the office.

Your Turn
What do you think about multitasking? Share your thoughts in the comments section, and vote in our multitasking poll!

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