There are two kinds of people who accept and encourage multitasking in workplace culture: Those who are unaware of its negative affects and those who don’t care. If you think the negative affects are negligible or justifiable, that would, in my cubicle, fall in the “don’t care” category. This post is for both kinds of people because even if you don’t care about this, I do and I care about you. I wrote this because I want to make the world a better place. If you want to make the world a better place, I hope you’ll read on, be convinced, and pass it on.
“How are you at multitasking,” every Interviewer asks. That is on my short-list of red-flag, deal-breaker questions. The best response might be, “I’m all for it and I am so grateful there will be room in my office for a playpen and diaper station.”
Fantasy interviews aside, in my professional compartment, I care about two people–my customer and myself. We both want a product based on focus and concentration, not distraction and interruption.
Would you put up with your surgeon multitasking? Your waitstaff or pastor? Can a judge, juror, attorney or witness take a call or stop to do something else? Do you encourage your children to multitask while studying? How about during rehearsal? On the assembly-line? The police officer directing traffic at an intersection?
No, you don’t. If you think those situations are different, you’re incorrect. With exceedingly rare exceptions (Production Assistants assigned only menial tasks requiring no real thought or knowledge for example), multitasking is a corporate cancer. This post is my pink ribbon.
You may have heard it takes 23 minutes and 15 seconds on average to get back on task after an interruption (Worker, Interrupted: The Cost of Task Switching by Kermit Pattison). Not only is that just the average but that’s just returning to the same level of focus and perhaps speed–it doesn’t take into account the less quantifiable relationship between concentration and quality (admittedly, data entry and such suffers relatively little, if at all).
Not even a receptionist should multitask. They are often expected to complete other tasks–ostensibly to stay “productive”–between greeting visitors and taking phone calls. Even if the quality of neither customer service nor the “side task” suffered, the receptionist’s moral suffers. Personally, I believe morale and stress aren’t always directly related, but that same FastCompany article discusses the stress factor in depth.
“We used a NASA workload scale, which measures various dimensions of stress, and we found that people scored significantly higher when interrupted. They had higher levels of stress, frustration, mental effort, feeling of time pressure and mental workload.”
At least in my case, not only does the initial task suffer but the new task as well. I try my best to project polite sunshine when I answer the phone or acknowledge Betty when she visits my cubicle but even if I am sincere and convincing, my mind is still with whatever I was doing. Perhaps increasingly so if the initial task was urgent and/or important and/or Betty is legitimately bothering me about something that is the opposite of urgent and/or important.
Having said all of this, I give one final warning: You may be your own worst enemy in this regard. I know I am–whether I am on-site or telecommuting. If you’re creative and passionate, inspiration can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It looks like work. It looks productive and beneficial. It eats time. Lots. It’s insatiable. Keep a notepad within arm’s reach and make yourself finish one thing before starting another. If it takes more than a sentence to write the idea down (because your brain is suddenly a geyser of world-changing, life-hacking brilliance). Let it go. I know, I know … but, seriously, let it go. Don’t be a hypocrite about Time Management vs Multitasking–hold yourself to the same standard. If this paragraph describes you, you know as well as I that more insanely great ideas will come later. Especially if you’re not interrupted.