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The Myth of the Multitasker

by Sellick Partnership | 4 November 2014

Multitasking: 1. (of a person) deal with more than one task at the same time; 2. (of a computer) execute more than one programme or task simultaneously

It's among the most commonly listed skills on CVs, and a skill traditionally attributed solely to women, but is multitasking as we know it simply a myth? In the past, the ability to multi-task has been seen positively both by employers and the general public - who wouldn't want to be able to power through their workload by performing several tasks simultaneously, after all - but contemporary studies show that not only is the concept of multitasking a fallacy in itself, but it might not even live up to its reputation.

Studies in recent years have questioned modern perceptions of the efficiency of working in a multitasking style, and the results are in: multitasking, or task-switching as it should be known, reduces productivity and work quality by up to 40%. Students solving a maths puzzle took 40% longer, made more errors and experienced more stress when they were asked to switch between two tasks, rather than focus on one puzzle at a time. Another study used a sample of individuals who described themselves as 'heavy multitaskers', and suggested that getting into the habit of juggling multiple tasks on a regular basis actually shortens your attention span and makes you more easily distracted than those who confess to multitasking less frequently. Therefore, multitasking might sound like a great skill to have, particularly in the workplace, but the reality is that it actually hampers cognitive functioning in the long-term, as well as significantly affecting the quality of your work in the short-term.

It makes sense to think that attention cannot feasibly be paid to more than one task at a given time without sacrificing the quality of your work in at least one area, unless the tasks being performed are using different areas of the brain: it's easy to walk to work and talk on the phone, or listen to music while you're at the gym for example, but far more difficult to write a report as you analyse a spreadsheet, or liaise with a client while you're sending an email. Indeed, although up to 70% of people would describe themselves as 'above average' at multi-tasking, the truth is that none of us excel in an environment which is stressful and full of distractions. The reality is that in the workplace we are unable to eradicate these distractions, and that no matter how hard we may try, it is far from easy to focus solely on one task at a time rather than juggle several of equal priority.

The solution here is to find a way to manage distractions in the workplace and control your workload. Rather than multi-task, or task-switch, throughout the day, holding several uncompleted tasks in suspension at all times, try to focus instead on prioritising your workload and working effectively under pressure. Psychologist David Crenshaw suggests building ten minute slots of time into your day to deal with interruptions or small, ad-hoc tasks which may arise. If you try to reduce the amount of task-switching you're doing on a regular basis, you'll find your stress levels will decrease as your cognitive functioning increases, and the quality of your work will speak for itself. 

While the definitions of multitasking which open this post suggest that it's a skill equally attributed to humans and machines, perhaps it's time to leave the multi-tasking to the computers? 

What do you think? Are you a pro at multitasking? Do you think it helps you in the workplace? Let us know your thoughts.