In today’s working world, one of the prerequisites to be competitive on the market is to multitask. Being able to focus on several tasks simultaneously. Or, at least, this is the way most corporations reason when employing new staff. How to blame them? Who wouldn’t be happy with employees capable of performing more in less time?
Living in a fast-paced world has its pros and cons. This is a given. However, if on the one side we have made communications quicker and quicker, on the other, there is this widespread idea that time seems ever insufficient to fulfill all of our daily duties. Did it ever happen to you to have many things to do, and not enough time at your disposal? If you ask me, it happened to me a lot.
The same goes for work. Having lived in Eastern Europe, I have noticed that 99% of big companies consider multitasking as a must-have. In short, you have to say (and prove with specific examples) that you can manage many duties together. Failure to do so meant being bypassed by others. Sadly, but true.
It is not the scope of this article to point the finger at managers or HRs as far as their recruiting systems are concerned. Rather, the purpose here is merely reflective. That is, despite this widespread opinion that multitasking seems an essential skill at all costs, is it really the best way forward? Is it, indeed, a must-have?
According to studies, going through several things at the same time proves to bring about more disadvantages than advantages. Why? For the simple reason that ‘splitting’ the focus among many different things is the primary cause of inefficiencies, and all manner of awkward mistakes, even among professionals. Let’s take emails, for instance. If you switch from writing an email to answering a phone call, and then back to the email again, your level of focus gets considerably reduced. This is how you end up neglecting important information, or forget to add some recipients in CC. Or, if you are working on an Excel table or formulas, and then you have to stop, due to an upcoming meeting, once you are back to your desk, you may be more tired and, thus, less detail-oriented. To the detriment of efficiency.
In case you are not an office person, let’s see a more practical example:
If you are at the wheel, and are both texting and staring at the phone, what is the chance of provoking a car crash? Quite high, actually, because your focus gets divided up into two different activities. On the contrary, the same person would decrease the chances of causing an accident if they would just drive without any distractions. It is not a coincidence that most accidents are provoked by distracted drivers doing ‘something else’ rather than just watching ahead.
Similarly, this is how we tend to forget to complete a task, or lack some fundamental information, or even get something wrong because we have mixed up this with that, like sending an email to the wrong recipient, just because two may have identical names but different domains. This is likely to occur when attempting to overdo it. Result: confusion and awkward mistakes.
Since I myself was working in a big company, where multitasking was a must (and had enough of this system), I started doing some proper research, and to my big surprise, I found out something quite interesting. The problem was not with me, nor with my level of (dis)organisation, or inexperience in the field. Far from it. From what I had found, it was simply the concept of multi-tasking to be wrong. It doesn’t, for the simple reason that we are not robots, and ever will be. While the latter can be wired to perform a number of tasks naturally and spotlessly, humans do not. They cannot naturally split their focus and get requested to have both eyes and attention everywhere. Like for the above example of the car, you can either drive or text. And if you try to do both, it is only at your own risk.
I hope that by reading this, you are now feeling a little bit uplifted. If you, too, are making occasional mistakes due to multitasking, no worries, you are not losing your touch, nor are you getting old. It is the system to be wrong underneath.
Incidentally, multitasking is the preferred way of corporations for the simple reason it makes us perform more. What many HRs and managers tend to neglect is that this comes at a cost. And the cost is lower performances and inefficiencies in general (not to mention the level of stress). Plus, it can also be costly if the mistake is caused by a person covering a certain position.
What to do at this point? If multitasking, as seen and confirmed by research, is an enemy to efficiency, what can be a ‘valid’ alternative that won’t backfire on us in terms of money, stress and efficiency?
The opposite of multitasking is single-tasking. That is, a system that implies doing one task at a time. This certainly may slow things down, but in terms of efficiency and performances, it does pay off in the long run. Less stress, better quality of life, and definitely fewer mistakes. This because you are 100% focused on one task alone. You finish up, and then move on to the next one, without behaving like a crazy ball bouncing across the room, causing more damage than anything. In addition, being more focused won’t make you waste time by taking corrections later on.
We often hear about the importance of feedbacks and work-life balance. I think that switching to single tasking would lower levels of pressure at work, and increase life’s quality. It would make things less stressful. A bit slower, yes, but more bearable and pleasant.
To sum up, when a company (with a special regard to big corporations) states that multitasking is the best way forward, they should think again, and do some research beforehand. They should research all pros and cons of multitasking, before saying it is a must-have. Before stating it is the best way forward in short.
So, next time you have many things to do, and apparently little time at your disposal, take a deep breath, and make a list of all of your tasks on a piece of paper. Then, get started but remember to do one thing at a time, enlisting tasks according to their level of priority. This is how, slowly but surely, your list will be empty, or close to it, by the end of the day. And guess what? You will have made it without necessarily multitask anymore.
Take care and good luck with your future to-do lists.