It’s Not Really Multitasking

The top job requirement you’re actually terrible at.

You’ve seen it in resumes and job descriptions a thousand times: multitasking. The idea that we can effectively and efficiently do multiple things at once has been disproved repeatedly by scientific studies, be we insist on trying it daily.

Computers aren’t that great at multitasking, either. Most software is only doing one thing at a time, it just switches between things very quickly. There is a measurable cost each time it switches to a new task, but we accept these context-switching costs because we can download, compile, chat, check email, and listen to music at the same time. It feels like multitasking, and we love it.

When we try to multitask, the time to switch tasks is much higher. We have to remember what we were doing. We have to put away old tools and take out new ones, or accept the chaos and clutter of having everything in front of us all of the time. We make more and bigger mistakes.

Photo courtesy of © iStockPhoto / ArthurBraunstein

What we’re really after when we’re talking about multitasking is juggling. The ability to quickly assess a situation, set priorities, and keep things moving forward. How many balls can you keep in the air? How many plates can you keep spinning on top of a stick?

I will grant that are instances where it’s okay to multitask. I listen to audiobooks while I’m driving, walking, or in the shower. My wife folds laundry in front of the television. These are mundane tasks, and multitasking does let you get more done.

One place I try not to multitask: spending time with my kids. I started to put on an audiobook once, when I was taking our daughter out for a walk in her stroller. I stopped myself and put the headphones away. I was spending one-on-one time with her—that’s already a solid Quadrant 2 activity. I didn’t need to throw an audiobook in for good measure.

Whenever possible, give a task your full attention. Focus on one thing at a time. When it’s completed, cross it off and move on to the next task.

When you get interrupted, try to set aside what you’re doing in such a way that you’ll be able to start it up again without losing too much context. Keep everything together. Take notes as you go. Jot down what the very next thing was you were going to do. (As a side bonus, putting everything aside gets it out of the way while you’re handling the interruption.)

If you get stuck, figure out what the next step is. Send an email requesting more information or pick up the phone. (Sometimes, you can get unblocked right away if you can just reach the right person.) Schedule time to come back to the project later. Once you are clear on how you will become unstuck, do something else.

Stop trying to multitask. You think you’re getting more done, but you’re probably just wasting time and energy. Instead, learn to plan. Learn what it takes to keep things moving. Learn how to get unstuck. Learn how to see a project through to completion.

There’s more satisfaction in checking twelve things off your list, done one at time, than in trying to do everything at once and finishing nothing.

Question: How do you handle requests to keep multiple balls in the air? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.


Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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