We’re all multitaskers. We talk and drive; we eat and read; we listen to music while we jog. We often do more than one thing at a time. And that’s okay—if only one of those tasks demands your full attention.
It’s when you’re trying to complete two tasks requiring that same level of attention that you can run into trouble.
What is multitasking?
When you do more than one activity at the same time, you’re multitasking. Some of these activities are expected, even required, such as taking notes during a lecture or presentation. However, we often simultaneously work on multiple unrelated tasks, too.
Think about your last conference call: When the discussion didn’t directly involve you, were you actively listening or were you scrolling through your to-do list and checking emails?
Is multitasking always a good way to work?
There are as many opinions about whether multitasking can make you more efficient in the workplace as there are people. It pretty much comes down to your own preferences: Some people (like leadership speaker and consultant Selena Rezvani) are “fervent anti-multitaskers,” while others say successful multitasking simply depends on selecting the right combination of tasks.
Marketing strategist Dorie Clark says “the right kind of multitasking can be transformative.”
You won’t “suffer from cognitive switching costs” if, for example, you’re listening to podcasts while exercising or cooking. She notes that “‘reading more’ is a common aspiration for busy professionals...and ‘strategic multitasking’ is a surprisingly easy way to fit it in.”
If you’re working on something that requires your full concentration, however, Rezvani tells us “you’re more likely to achieve ‘flow’ through single-tasking. In this feel-good state, you’re fully immersed into the task at hand—which can help you go deep. Make yourself distraction-proof by doing one thing at a time, until it's completed. Then, and only then, pivot to the next thing.”
What are the benefits and risks of multitasking in the workplace?
There are definite benefits to multitasking, such as getting lots done in a shorter amount of time. The drawbacks are that it can be a stressful way of working and lead to prioritization issues and problems focusing. It’s not usually a sustainable way of working; people just burn out.
The biggest drawback, though, is that your attention is constantly fractured. We all know that distracted driving can lead to accidents; distraction in the workplace can also lead to injuries, but most often to errors and misunderstandings, which in turn lowers work quality and productivity.
In order to get the best results when you do multitask, you need to choose the right tasks.
“The biggest drawback to trying to complete several things concurrently is that you won't be giving your full attention and focus to anything, so at least one of your senses needs to be on autopilot,” career change coach Lisa Lewis Miller tells InHerSight.
“This can be fine in certain circumstances, such as if you're sending repetitive customer service emails and feel comfortable listening to a podcast at the same time, or when you’re cleaning data in a spreadsheet while listening in to an internal meeting for another project.”
How do you become a better multitasker?
With multitasking almost inevitable at work, it can help if you become more efficient at switching your attention between multiple tasks. One way to do this is by planning.
Lewis Miller gives the example of an hour-long conference call you’re expected to attend, but you only need to present during the first 15 minutes. Before getting on the call, pick out a few projects you can work on in the background. That way, you can make efficient use of those 45 minutes.
She adds: “If you're expected to take meeting notes or send out the post-call action items, you can be creating the list of next steps during the call itself so you can send them quickly after the meeting ends. The goal is to pick work tasks that don't require your full cognitive attention and don't conflict with each other's sensory processing.”
Part of planning ahead means prioritizing tasks so you don’t get bogged down with busy work. If you can’t delegate or automate them, schedule those less urgent and less cognitively demanding tasks as secondary to those you need your full attention for.
You can schedule those less demanding tasks, too. With the pomodoro technique, in which you work on one task only for a certain amount of time, there are built-in breaks. You can use these breaks to switch focus to complete those smaller tasks, before returning to your main task.
Remember, too, that urgent is not the same as important. You’ll need to shuffle priorities on the fly sometimes, when a crisis takes precedence over your carefully planned schedule. Put out the fire, then reorganize by deadline or due date. If you’ve left room in your planner for the unexpected, you’ll be fine; if not, ask for help and push the least important project back, and delegate whatever you can.
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Moving between similar activities is easier than making the mental adjustments required when pivoting between unrelated tasks. If your work tends to be in silos, like marketing and inbound sales, for example, see if you can multitask on marketing-related work only, and then move to inbound sales. Your focus won’t have to change completely to make that switch between like tasks.
And once you do finish something and turn to the next task, make sure you’re mentally done with it. If there’s a follow-up or future task you’re still thinking about, put it on your to-do list so you can forget it and move on.
About our sources
Selena Rezvani is an author and speaker dedicated to helping women carve out leadership paths on their own terms. Through her LinkedIn Learning courses on confidence and presence, her workshops, and keynotes, she trains thousands of professionals each year on how to influence like a boss—and be seen and heard.
Lisa Lewis Miller is a career change coach who helps unfulfilled individuals find careers that light them up. She's helped more than 500 people make transitions, and is the host of The Career Clarity Show on Apple Podcasts.