Multitasking Mixed Messages

Is Task-Juggling at Work OK? 


In the heyday of multitasking, it was common to brag about answering email, writing a report all while in a meeting about the latest sales numbers. But today, multitasking has plenty of detractors, and for good reason. We now know that focusing on a single task, not juggling two or three, decreases stress and increases productivity exponentially. However, in many jobs, including production, assembly line, administrative, even managerial jobs, employers consider multitasking an asset. And in certain positions, i.e.  Reception, Front Office, or Customer Service, constant interruption and switching gears is simply part of the job. These mixed messages can have employees asking, when it comes to workplace multitasking, exactly what’s acceptable and what spells job disaster?

Workplace Multitasking: Acceptable

  • You go high-low. According to experts on cognitive function, the key to effective multitasking is pairing a low level task with a higher level task. If you are engaged in something mundane, like stuffing envelopes or highlighting weekly income totals on the annual report, feel free to have that weekly check-in meeting, or dial in to the monthly conference call without worrying that your draining brain power. 
  • Your job requires it. Don’t confuse doing too much that your work suffers with putting good job skills to work. Many jobs require multitasking behaviors. In fact, employers sometimes consider it a job requirement. Taking a coffee order at the same time you’re making change isn’t inefficient. It’s good service. And, the more habitual multitasking becomes (that is, the more experience you accrue) the less cognitive dissonance will result.
  • You’re chunking it out. There’s a difference between doing two things at once and alternating tasks. If your job requires you to accomplish diverse duties, but you’re doing them in blocks of time of at least 15 to 20 minutes (the longer the better) without interruption, you’re “chunking”– and your multitasking is probably in the clear. 

Workplace Multitasking: Unacceptable 

  • You’re there, but you’re not there. Sometimes, managers encourage workplace multitasking – when conference calls last for hours, answering email or working on other projects is expected practice. However, it’s important to understand multitasking expectations in your workplace, even if rules are not explicit. Are earbuds customary, or do they make you look like you’ve checked out? Does compulsive phone-checking in meetings mean you’re dedicated, or that you’re more interested in your personal life?
  • You’re constantly task switching. According to the author of The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done you’re losing precious time when you task switch: it’s the refocusing that causes time spillage. If your switch-to-task ratio is out of proportion, you’re on multitasking alert. Set single daily meetings with conversational time burglars, and shut down electronics to avoid interruptions. Immerse in tasks for 15 minutes and work your way up to 40 to reset your multitasking meter.
  • You’re not taking time to think. You may be good at being task-focused, but you turn to email immediately after closing that Excel sheet. Take five instead. A breather after focusing on a task isn’t just a mini-vacation for your brain, say cognitive scientists. That brain downtime allows you to make connections, come up with solutions, and be more creative on the job. And that will make you a better employee, not just a busier one.
What’s Your Multitasking Profile?
Multitasking Maven. If I’m not texting, emailing, walk-talking to a lunch meeting while on hold with tech support, call the authorities – space beings have taken over my body.
Not Now, I’m Chunking: For at least 15 minute intervals, I’m immersed. Except for the phone – hey, it could be important.
Do Not Disturb. Zen-like periods of focus are the only way I get my work done. All my calls go straight to voice mail.

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