Multitasking – Friend or Foe?

“There are people who want to be everywhere at once, and they get nowhere.” ~ Carl Sandburg

In our rapidly changing society, it seems like every day we hear some new buzzword.  The information age has certainly brought a plethora of new words into our daily vernacular. Some of them are good – some of them are not so good – but they all seem to be instantly accepted as something we should all be doing and saying on a regular basis. I’d like to take a few minutes to challenge one of those readily accepted buzzwords as being damaging to both business productivity and to personal productivity and that word is “multitasking”.

Multitasking really gained prominence a few years ago and it has, unfortunately, stuck. Job requirements now regularly specify ones need to be an efficient multitasker. It’s now a badge of honor of sorts for an interviewee to make quickly known that one of their very best attributes is multitasking. I’m almost certain that somewhere out there, universities are now offering Multitasking 101 and it will soon become an MBA required course. Yes, the world of buzzwords wants us all to become “highly efficient multitaskers”, but I believe that’s an oxymoron. To my way of thinking, being highly efficient requires focus, and multitasking reduces the degree to which one can give full focus.

While this mental juggling act may indeed be necessary in some job functions, I really can’t think of a job function that would not be better performed by having the worker’s full attention. Multitasking became a popular buzzword because companies wanted to increase productivity, but according to a study in the Journal of Psychology:  Human Perception and Performance (Vol. 27, No 4), multitasking actually decreases productivity as our brain has to go through a recall process to determine exactly where we left off. I believe this not only reduces productivity but is also when and where mistakes occur that further exacerbate a loss of productivity.

Just think about a time when you were attempting to do too many things at once in an effort to “be more efficient” and ended up making a costly mistake that took much longer to correct (if in fact it could be corrected) than it would have taken if you had given your full attention to doing one thing at a time and doing each one right the first time. This doesn’t just apply to our work lives either. Ever accidently added bleach to a load of colored clothes?

As the workplace has evolved into the technology age, we’ve been overburdened with too much to do and too little time in which to do it, so we’ve taken this buzzword that began with computers (which actually have the ability to effectively multitask) and tried to apply to us mere humans.  We’ve proclaimed the ability to multitask as a crucial attribute so that job seekers now wear it as a badge of honor, but we’re doing our businesses a disservice by encouraging employees to multitask. I encourage businesses to take a different approach. Train your employees to focus their full attention on one task at a time and watch productivity increase, but even more important – watch mistakes decline.

In the self storage business, I see mistakes commonly occur at the end of the day when stores are trying to close. They have a barrage of duties to perform including making certain their stores are ready for business the next day as well as doing their nightly deposits. When I start seeing deposit errors, I know I’ve got someone trying to multitask and it’s time for me to give some training on focusing on one thing at a time. While the employee may have gotten home 5 minutes earlier, they’re going to lose an hour or more trying to straighten out their bank deposit tomorrow.

Does your business encourage multitasking or do you train your team to focus on the task at hand and do it right the first time?

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Monty Rainey is a District Manager with over 14 years in the self storage industry currently overseeing 21 stores in the Austin & San Antonio, TX area. He is also a leadership coach and public speaker. For a free consultation, please contact Monty at 830-743-2139 or visit his website at http://www.montyrainey.com .

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About montyrainey

Public Speaker and District Manager. Mission: To empower and inspire others professionally, personally and spiritually to elevate their lives to a higher level.
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2 Responses to Multitasking – Friend or Foe?

  1. What often gets confused with ‘multi-tasking’ is ’interruption’ such as answering a phone call or greeting an office mate who stops by our office. It’s possible that one makes a choice to multi-task versus a result of another actions or circumstance (phone ringing) that cause an interruption. From experience and ongoing study I appreciate the points you make in the article — however, it’s also true (based on research by Birkman) that some people NEED variety while others NEED a predictable workflow. Some people are better able to respond to the interruptions as they occur that requires them to multi-task. I am a big believer of Living In The NOW…stay focused on what is at hand at the present, however interruptions may occur and it’s how we respond to the interruptions — are we operating in our strength behavior (interruptions and multi-tasking is good) or stress behavior (don’t bother me I’m working on this now).

  2. Steve Cooper says:

    Monty, I do believe it depends on content and context. If I am studying to teach a Bible class on Sunday I need research time, thinking time and preparation time, each uninterrupted and preferably connected on after the other, sort of. If however, I am managing a variety of projects, each with its own timeline and particulars, I must coordinate many of my to-dos with their many gettin’-it-dones, which I must organize in my wait-for-’em stack. If you view the project management as a single task, you’re probably right. Nevertheless, there’s much to do in getting things done. That may fall in the definition of multitasking.

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