We live in a society of short attention spans, where everyone is doing everything at once. We watch a program on TV while texting on our cell phones and checking email on our laptops. We drive our cars while talking on the phone and listening to the GPS. And we reply to work emails while we’re checking our Facebook news feeds. We have become so hardwired to do several things at once that the thought of doing just one thing makes some of us feel unproductive, even uncomfortable. Yet our multitasking lifestyle begs the question: are we really getting more done, and done well?
For years, multitasking has been considered to be an essential skill of any good employee. According to David Silverman of the Harvard Business Review, “Multitasking isn’t just an addiction for the short-attention-spanned among us; it’s crucial to survival in today’s workplace.” Yet many experts argue that multitasking actually takes a heavy toll on productivity and accuracy. Instead of completing more tasks faster, we’re letting them pile up and dragging them out by jumping from one thing to the next. What’s worse, when we do complete tasks, they’re not as well done as they could have been if we had focused more on them.
In the workplace, multitasking has been debated—with many for and against it—many times over. And while both arguments have their merits, it’s important to make one clearly-defined distinction, between “multitasking” versus “multi-skilled.” Multitasking means you’re doing many different tasks at once. Multi-skilled means you have different skills that you can apply to your work, like business writing, software knowledge, etc. In the ongoing argument about workplace multitasking, many people confuse the two.
Since being multi-skilled is obviously a good thing, let’s focus on the pros and cons of multitasking only, starting with the positives.
Pros of Multitasking
There are lots of reasons multitasking is good in the office, including that it lets you:
Handle issues as they arise. Perhaps the most highly-noted benefit of multitasking is that it makes it easier to handle an issue as soon as it comes up. You may be working on a report when an urgent request comes in from your boss. Being able to drop what you’re doing and work on the urgent request is crucial in the business world.
Combine high- and low-priority tasks. Our workloads are full of big projects and little projects. If we focused solely on the big projects, the little (yet absolutely necessary) ones would fall by the wayside, and vice versa. Multitasking allows us to balance high- and low-priority tasks so that they all get done.
Use different skill levels. Similar to working on high- and low-level tasks, multitasking allows us to use different skill levels throughout the day. Maybe you start the day of answering emails, then move on to something more creative, like creating a PowerPoint presentation or a graphic design.
Keep things interesting. Using different skill levels and working on different tasks throughout the day also means we can keep things interesting. We alternate tasks, so no two days are the same and we can avoid getting bored with our work.
Have a flexible workforce. A multitasking workforce is a flexible workforce, in which employees can switch from one task to another as needed. Without multitasking, workers can become too stuck in their ways, and it could be harder for them to meet the company’s needs as they arise.
Be a team player. When you can multitask effectively, you can become a better team player. For instance, if your coworker needs a piece of information, you can stop what you’re doing, find it, and send it to her quickly, so she’s not left waiting for hours or even days. This can help your team accomplish things more quickly.
Although it’s apparent that multitasking has some very real benefits in the workplace, it also has some equally big downsides, especially when you factor in non-work-related stimuli and distractions.
Cons of Multitasking
Some of the drawbacks of multitasking include that it:
Slows you down. When you’re doing many things at once, it seems like you’re getting a lot done, but in many cases you’re actually getting less done. Your mind doesn’t have enough time to properly focus on one single task if you switch gears too often. Every time you switch, whether you realize it or not, your brain takes some time to remember and figure out what it needs to accomplish.
Affects memory. Our brains store long-term memory when we pay close attention to things. When we multitask, we’re not focusing on things closely enough, so they don’t get stored in our brains properly. This results in forgetfulness and a loss of productivity because of it.
Stresses you out. Doing complex multitasking can cause stress. If you’re juggling so many things that you’re constantly worried you’re going to forget something, you are in fact likely to forget something! This causes stress. Your mind has to work double-time on the task at hand, while trying to make sure you don’t forget something important or make a mistake.
Leads to errors. The stress caused by multitasking can also lead to work errors. When you’re stressed, it’s harder to recognize errors, plus it’s also harder to find solutions to them. The correct answer could be right in front of you, but because of the stress you don’t recognize it.
Hurts relationships. Multitasking can be detrimental even beyond the workplace. When we don’t focus on our families, spouses, children, and friends because we are constantly checking our work email or browsing online, we are hurting those relationships.
Dampens creativity. Studies have shown that the creative mind works better when it’s focused. Designers and writers need a certain environment in order to thrive creatively, usually one that’s devoid of distractions. Multitasking can introduce distractions that can dampen your creative mind.
Do you think multitasking is a necessary evil, or are we better off giving each task our full attention?