Tuesday, January 5, 2010


I was reading an article online this morning that mentioned employers listed multitasking as one of the most valuable characteristics they look for in their employees or prospective employees. My skin began to crawl.

Multitasking, to me, is a myth -- a sometimes dangerous myth. If you've ever been annoyed by the driver who is simultaneously texting and obliviously cutting you off, then perhaps you agree.

I think it is important to understand what employers mean when they cite multitasking as a valuable skill. When I first think of the word multitasking, I see in my mind's eye a person who is talking on the phone and trying to compose an e-mail or surf the net. I see a person who is giving me half of his or her attention while dealing with some other matter on the desk in front of them. In short, I see rudeness and ineffectiveness.

I don't think these are the types of multitasking that employers are looking for. It is possible for us to truly mutitask in certain activities. Perhaps you are able to walk and chew gum at the same time. It's possible to listen to a traffic report on the radio and drive at the same time. But what makes these things possible is that at least one of the tasks takes little or no active thought on our part. The more intensive the tasks, the less likely you can do more than one of them. Furthermore, the more tasks you add, regardless of how small, the more of your brain's processing power you're going to eat up.

In an era of speed and almost overwhelming information input, you are much better served by learning to focus and plan than to attempt these immediate kinds of multitasking. What employers truly want from you is the ability to manage your schedule so that you can give each task the attention it needs and deserves. Yes, they want you to be able to work on more than one project at a time. They want you to be able to keep the details straight when you leave your desk after working on the Anderson account to attend a meeting about the new Bennington account, but they really don't expect you to be on the phone with both accounts at the same time.

Employers want competent employees who can give their focus to more than one project and meet multiple deadlines. They want employees who can produce quality work. They want employees who can work quickly but who don't give the impression of being hurried or hassled. You can't give that impression to your employer if you're trying to multitask everything.

So, don't take the article's advice too literally. There may be limited situations where true multitasking is appropriate and even necessary, but what this article is trying to tell you -- albeit using the wrong word -- is that employers want employees who can effectively manage their workload.


emelda said...

I work in a company where I do all kinds of job from data entry to data production and some administrative work without any training. Balancing my time is usually difficult especially when I have a time fixed for a particular task with others still hanging. Please I need some advice.

David said...


I'd need to know more particulars to give you any kind of meaningful specific advice. For now, some general advice will have to suffice.

Having fixed times to accomplish tasks can actually be beneficial. It's a way of organizing your time. Whether I have a set schedule or not, I find that balancing my time is more difficult when I'm anxious about the status of my projects.

Have you ever taken a trip and found that it seemed like it took longer to get to your destination than it took to get back? If so, you've experienced what I call the Time Zone of the Unknown. You could be right around the corner from your destination, but since you aren't sure, you have no idea if your trip is going to last one more second or one more hour.

This effect tends to create a series of moments where you feel you are a long way from your destination. When you remember the trip, it feels like it took a long time. On the way back, you have all sorts of markers to tell you what kind of progress you're making. This reduces your anxiety and makes the trip seem quicker.

The same is true when you're working on your projects. If you're not keeping track of your progress, all of your tasks can feel overwhelming and make you feel like you'll never get them done.

I combat this anxiety by taking time at the beginning of each project to list the tasks involved and make an estimate of how long it will take me to accomplish them. Before I move on to another project, I take a moment to document what I've accomplished on the project I'm setting aside. I make notes for myself to make it easier to pick that project back up later. Not only does this help me to see the progress I'm making, but it helps me to see which projects are ahead of schedule and which are behind, which helps me to prioritize my work.

It's still work to get everything done, and it can still be challenging to balance sometimes competing demands, but at least I don't have the additional anxiety of not knowing where I am. Similarly, I know when I have to make an additional effort, maybe staying late one night to catch up, and when I can afford to take a few moments for that cup of coffee or moment of meditation.

I hope that's helpful, emelda. Thanks for your comment, and thanks for reading.