Browse through any online job listings for 15 to 20 minutes and you’re bound to see it. Written in bold under the “Essential Skills” header you’ll find “Multi-tasking” – the seemingly superhuman ability to do two or more things at once, both efficiently and effectively.
Multi-tasking: the myth explained
The idea of multi-tasking started to seep into certain, specialized sectors of the professional world in the mid 1990s. By the early 2000s, however, the concept had swept through every manner of workplace like a sneeze in flu season. New technologies were rapidly redefining the way we worked, and chief among those changes was pace. What might have taken a week to do in 1965 could now be done in 24-36 hours. And unsurprisingly, what could be done quickly became what must be done.
As a result of this dizzying increase in speed and complexity, multi-tasking became a kind of holy grail among managers and HR personnel. As they themselves struggled to juggle their increased responsibilities, this savant-like “skill” was seen as both a must and a rarity (I know, typical, right?). Although they often claimed to be proficient multi-taskers themselves, on the inside these leaders harbored a dark secret – they were actually awful at it.
How do I know that? Because almost all humans are awful at it. Time and time again, research has shown that people are no good at multi-tasking. Doing two or more things at once, or doing multiple high-level tasks in a single hour, consistently results in both lower quality and slower work. You may feel like you’re getting a lot done, but that’s most likely just an illusion caused by feeling so scattered and hectic.
Remember, just because you’re racing doesn’t mean you’re taking the best route to the finish line.
Today, multi-tasking’s once iron grip on the minds of American managers is thankfully loosening. But a similar idea has already cropped up to take its place – micro-tasking.
What is Micro-tasking?
Micro-tasking is the process of switching one’s attention between different tasks in quick, short succession. Whereas talking on the phone while checking your e-mail would be considered multi-tasking, stopping halfway through an e-mail to make a short phone call, then returning to the e-mail, would be considered micro-tasking.
Most often, micro-tasking refers to switching between a large number of small tasks in a short time. So, what do the experts have to say about this new, near cousin of multi-tasking? Well, it depends. Research indicates that the value of micro-tasking has a lot to do with the number (and nature) of the tasks you’re switching between. A study by the University of Michigan found that the brain takes up to seven tenths of a second to switch focus between two tasks. Moreover, the more times the brain has to switch between different tasks within a given period of time, the more prone one becomes to error.
However, most of us have no choice but to micro-task. We can’t control when we receive urgent e-mails, phone calls, or visits to our office. So, the ability to address these frequent interruptions and still get our work done is a must in today’s working world.
What to do?
Micro-tasking is inevitable, but to help ensure you don’t overdo it, begin by prioritizing.
- Each day, identify your Top 3 most important tasks and focus on those one at a time until they’re done.
- Try to consolidate your distractions as much as possible. If you know you’ll have to make four phone calls, try your best to schedule them all in a given block.
- Do whatever you can to reduce the distractions in your day-to-day.
Whether you work from home, or an office, you should limit the sources of sensory input that surround you at work. Do you swear by listening to your favorite podcast while working on your finances or case reports? Try your best to swear it off instead. No matter how capable you may feel, it is all but certain that you are reducing your performance in both activities by doing them at the same time.
It’s hard to focus when you’re flying through the day. By doing one thing at a time, you’ll actually be saving yourself time… not to mention a whole lot of mental discomfort.
Are you still feeling puzzled by the art of organization? This tip sheet can help you clear the clutter.