Learn how to multitask the right way and avoid common mistakes. Discover the three types of multitasking and how they can affect your productivity. Find out how to optimize your work environment and manage your workload to make multitasking work for you.
Multitasking – how to do it the right way and avoid common mistakes?
Multitasking can significantly impact the performance of individual employees and whole teams. The right approach to handling multiple tasks in a short time frame is essential for combining efficiency with high-quality results.
In today's busy and ever-evolving business environment, multitasking has become one of the key abilities of efficient workers and managers. It is also a common, although usually implicit, job requirement that can be inferred from the diversity of tasks assigned to specific roles. Multitasking has been both a popular concept and a subject of controversy, with varying views on how it works and affects performance.
Multitasking: we've been doing this for ages
The idea of multitasking originated in the field of computing. Literally, it refers to the concurrent execution of multiple processes. Obviously, humans can't compete with computers in parallel task performance. Still, we do have the ability to engage in two or more activities at once or in a short time span. In a way, we've been doing this for ages, well before coining the fancy word that.
Some long-lasting or modern examples are:
- cooking food and entertaining your kid at the same time,
- arranging merchandise on store shelves while servicing a customer,
- driving a car while contemplating cost optimization options,
- typing while taking part in a call or conference,
- or, generally speaking, intertwining any manual work with human-to-human interaction.
Three types of multitasking
The examples mentioned above refer to only two activities at once, as the "art" of performing different tasks simultaneously is rather hard to scale. But the common misconception about multitasking is that it consists solely of doing two or more things at the same time – while it doesn't.
Basically, there are three types of multitasking:
- performing actions simultaneously,
- performing them interchangeably,
- performing them shortly one after another.
The first one is the closest to the literal meaning of the term. At the same time, it's the riskiest in terms of error susceptibility and compromising efficiency for the speed of execution. The second type refers to switching between tasks before completing them. Such behavior is frequently necessitated by the urge of the moment, ever-changing circumstances in a dynamic work environment, etc. Frequently though, it is a way of coping with procrastination, when we cannot focus on one thing and quickly move on to another, only to return to the previous task later. The third type is probably the farthest from the literal concept of multitasking. At the same time, it's perhaps the most efficient and least error-prone one, as it requires focus and a getting-things-done attitude.
Multitasking may lead to opposite results depending on the circumstances
Multitasking can be a double-edged sword. Its upsides and downsides, as well as its impact on work efficiency, depend on several factors, including individual capabilities, employer's requirements, and expectations, workload, workflow, company's organizational culture, and, as hinted above, the type of multitasking.
For example, a person prone to losing focus, being overburdened with tasks, and operating under pressure in a chaotic work environment without clear objectives from the management will hardly be a successful multitasker. On the other hand, a focused employee with solid qualifications, sticking to a plan or verified routines, and functioning in a well-structured work environment may achieve significantly better performance with multitasking.
The best multitaskers don't multitask
With many issues involved, it's difficult to provide a proven recipe for productive multitasking. It is worth noting, though, that juggling tasks is, for the most part, not inherently related to specific professions. More often, it is forced by time pressure, employer's expectations, requirements of temporary circumstances, or even employee's predispositions, especially those related to the ability to concentrate on a specific activity for a longer time.
According to research, human attention span decreased by nearly 25% between 2000 and 2015, and in recent years it's been estimated at 8.25 seconds on average – down by 4.25 compared to approximately 20 years ago. Difficulties in maintaining focus and an inclination to get distracted may also contribute to shifting back and forth between different tasks.
The study performed at the University of Utah indicates that people who lack the ability to multitask… multitask more often and tend to have inflated opinionopinions onof their multitasking ability. On the other hand, those capable of performing parallel activities effectively usually avoid doing so, as they can easily focus on the task at hand.
The pros and cons of multitasking
In any case, multitaskers should aim to have proper command over their activities. Feeling overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks is a signal to slow down and get a better perspective of the objectives ahead.
Multitasking done right has some essential pros, such as:
- it helps increase efficiency, thus saving time and money,
- it may boost performance,
- it builds resilience and the ability to operate in a fast-paced environment,
- it expands your skills as a result of dealing with a variety of tasks,
- it enhances satisfaction and motivation related to increased productivity.
There are more benefits involved, like increasing flexibility, improving adaptability to a fluctuating environment, or, ultimately, advancing your career. But there are also disadvantages and risks to consider.
If multitasking grows out of control, the price to pay is:
- diminished quality,
- higher error rate,
- decreased efficiency (resulting from the necessity to correct errors and improve quality),
- temporarily lowered creativity and… IQ (confirmed by research),
- negative impact on the workflow and collaboration quality,
- employer's or client's dissatisfaction with work results or delivered service,
- excessive stress, decreasing motivation, mood swings, etc.,
- burnout syndrome.
Is it possible to multitask at all?
The key thing to know about "hard-core" parallel multitasking is that it's possible to perform two or more things simultaneously, but it's virtually impossible to focus on more than one. So says science. The human brain has two processing mechanisms: an older, "automatic" one and an evolutionary newer system controlled by rational thinking.
The first can easily support routine, mentally non-engaging tasks like walking, dishwashing, or even driving a car. The latter is "launched" when you perform more demanding activities. However, if two or more tasks compete for your cognitive resources, you won't be able to deliver high-quality performance for any of them. To do things right while multitasking, you need to have a full focus on one thing and do another one (almost) automatically.
How to multitask the right way?
Let's be straight: in one form or another, multitasking is inevitable. To cope with the daily flood of stimuli and challenges at work or even in our private life, we sometimes need to handle more than one thing at once. So, how to do it the right way? There are several ways to make your multitasking more efficient and avoid its downsides.
1. Focus only on one thing at a time
In all three types of multitasking, it is possible to zero in on just one activity. If you're doing two things at once, give full attention to the primary one and make sure the other one is routine, mentally non-engaging work.
2. Try to complete one task before starting another
This approach leaves out two types of multitasking – but maybe it's only for good. Understandably, it's not always possible, so try to make it a frequent practice rather than a golden rule.
3. Be mindful
If you haven't been practicing mindfulness, you might want to give it a shot. A work environment is a good place to start. Being mindful, attentive, functioning "in the here and now," and keeping your eye on detail certainly can help in efficient multitasking.
4. Work according to a plan
Try to plan your work for each day and stick to the schedule. Whenever you're interrupted and have to deal instantly with unexpected situations, get back to your agenda as soon as possible.
5. Avoid distractors
There are myriads of things you'd prefer to be doing instead of doing what you're doing right now. Forget about them. Don't check those social media, stock charts, holiday deals, or weather forecasts. Just focus on the things at hand. You'll handle them faster and be able to move on to your guilty pleasures sooner than if you procrastinate.
For your project, choose a company with an effective organizational culture
The right approach to multitasking yields plenty of benefits not only for multitaskers themselves but also for the companies they work for and their clients. A company with a smart organizational culture knows how to combine dynamic work pace with efficiency to secure the highest quality standards and provide the best performance.
If you're looking for a versatile team of experts with experience in a multitude of IT areas, capable of handling a multitude of tasks and delivering expected results, here we are. Get in touch!