Multi-tasking for the Modern Workforceby Seb
Remember we promised you we’d go into more depth about those 11 strategies for coping with information overload? Well, we’re not known for breaking promises so here’s an insightful article about strategy number two: multi-tasking.
It’s controversial. Many believe that multi-tasking actually makes you less productive, but given that the majority of employees are now expected to juggle multiple tasks during a workday, multi-tasking is something we really need to stop arguing about and just get on with.
Multi-taskers are in high demand in the workforce, and organisations will often look for employees with multi-tasking skills. In a recent interview with the Radio Times Alan Sugar suggested that the civil service could be made significantly more productive by encouraging multi-tasking.
“When I compare it to my commercial organisation, we have people who multi-task, and if you applied that multi-tasking philosophy within the civil service you would cut the labour force by half.” – Lord Sugar, Radio Times
Multi-tasking allows you to work on a variety of tasks concurrently, switching between them when necessary to ensure that they are all completed. It allows you to combine high priority tasks with low priority tasks so that the most pressing jobs get done quickly, while you make progress with the rest of your work, meaning those small tasks don’t take up permanent residence on your to-do list.
Multi-tasking allows you to deal with quick, simple tasks immediately and get them out of the way, freeing up your brain to get back to the task you were originally working on. It also enables you to use a variety of skill sets during the day, preventing you from becoming bored. When you hit a wall with one task, you have the ability to switch to something else and rejuvenate before you tackle the original task once more.
For businesses, having employees that are able to multitask brings a huge number of benefits. It means that employees are more flexible and can cover for one another at short notice as they are able to perform a wide range of tasks. It also means that knowledge and information can be shared quickly and easily. Even if an employee is focused on one task, he or she can take time to share data with co-workers if that allows them to continue with their own tasks.
The higher up in an organisation you are, the more beneficial it will be to multi-task. If you’re managing people, you need to be able to respond immediately to issues as they arise rather than putting them off until you have completed the task you are working on.
Is genuine multi-tasking even possible?
There are many misconceptions about multi-tasking, and the most common is that it actually involves doing multiple, high-focus tasks at the same time. In reality the majority of human brains aren’t capable of focusing on more than one task at any given time. Instead our brains ‘toggle’ between tasks. The brain needs to switch off a set of rules it is applying to one task, and engage another set of rules for another task.
To understand this better, let’s take a look at the origin of the word multi-tasking, which came from computing. The CPU or central processing unit of a computer is capable of multi-tasking because it is a resource that can be shared between multiple tasks. However, the CPU only actually gives instructions for one task at a time. It is the speed with which the CPU switches between tasks and its ability to re-engage with each task instantly that gives the impression that the tasks are being processed simultaneously. Human brains are very much like a CPU, but the time it takes for us to resume a task that has been interrupted is considerably longer.
The only time when we are truly capable of doing two things at once is when one of those has become automatic. For example most of us can walk and talk at the same time. Walking has become an automatic action that requires very little brain activity, so talking can become the primary activity that our brain focuses on.
Think about what automatic actions in your daily routine you could combine with other tasks to increase your productivity.
So what is multitasking then?
When most people talk about multi-tasking, what they are actually referring to is a person’s ability to remain aware of what is happening around them when they are working on one task and to quickly and easily switch from that task to another when it is productive to do so. They may have several tasks on the go at any one time, but they are only actually working on one of them. This is a vital attribute in modern business.
“Multi-tasking isn't just an addiction for the short-attention-spanned among us; it's crucial to survival in today's workplace.” – David Silverman, Harvard Business Review
How can you be a multi-tasker?
Before you look at ways to improve your multi-tasking capabilities, make sure you’re multi-tasking for the right reasons.
Are you multi-tasking because you feel overwhelmed? Should you try prioritising or delegating instead before you jump into multi-tasking? Are your manager or employer’s expectations of you just a little unreasonable? Is your workload too large?
Are you multi-tasking because of distractions? Is it really essential to answer every e-mail immediately? Do you need to update your Facebook status so frequently? If you removed these types of distractions would you be able to focus on the task at hand more effectively?
Are you multi-tasking because you feel you could be more productive? Excellent – then on to the next stage!
Here are a few ways you can improve your productivity through multi-tasking:
Consider the stimuli needed for each task. Combining tasks that use different stimuli can increase the effectiveness of multi-tasking. A task that is largely audio based, such as talking on the phone, combines with a visual task, such as watching a screen can work better together than two visual tasks or two audio tasks.
Be realistic about the amount of attention you need to give to a particular task. Distinguish between tasks that will get done quicker if you are multi-tasking, and those that will require 100% of your attention over a longer period.
Limit the number of tasks you are working on at any one time. Having between two and five pieces of work on the go is possible with multi-tasking, but if you have any more than that you run the risk that none of them will ever get completed.
Remove unnecessary distractions. Many people confuse multi-tasking with distraction. Each task you undertake should be planned with a particular goal in mind. One of your tasks might be to check and respond to your outstanding e-mails, but once that is done then close your inbox down so it doesn’t provide a distraction from your other tasks.
Re-engage with each task quickly. When you stop one task in order to switch to another, take a few seconds to record what you were doing or what you were about to do. This may simply mean jotting down a couple of notes, or highlighting a phrase in a document. This will help you to resume that task more easily.
Consider serial mono-tasking rather than multi-tasking. This means giving yourself short time slots to focus exclusively on each task before you switch to the next.
Clifford Nass, psychology professor at Stanford University suggests that the 20 minute rule applies to multi-tasking and that you should dedicate chunks of 20 minutes to each task.
Anyone can be a great multi-tasker, but you need to remember that multi-tasking does not mean doing a number of tasks at the same time. It means having the flexibility to switch between tasks quickly and easily when it is appropriate to do so and having the ability to focus enough time and attention on each single task to get it done to a high standard.
Multi-taskers are able to prioritise their workload to ensure that high priority tasks are completed quickly without neglecting low priority tasks, and they understand that fitting quick requests from co-workers in between other tasks will allow everyone to work more productively and will benefit the business as a whole.