Am l More Productive When l Multitask?

4 min read

By Cody Lyon

Phones are ringing off the hook, your desk looks like a fire hazard and your computer screen just let you know you've got new mail. Out of nowhere comes your boss to ask you about that Excel document he'd wanted you to compile. Suddenly you're gripped by fear as you recall the question from that sweet-talking human-resources person in the days before you landed this new job: “How are your multitasking skills?”

The Rumor: People who multitask are more productive

The facts are what they are: At many companies today, there are smaller staffs putting in longer hours and knocking out more and more tasks. Most workers are expected to juggle several projects at the same time, with new -- and often unexpected - orders coming at them throughout the day. It’s called multitasking, and it can be found in almost every job environment now. But is the human brain really capable of focusing on several projects at the same time? Or would we be more productive if we focused on each task individually?

The Verdict: Some people are more productive when they focus on one task at a time

“I firmly believe that multitasking is a myth,” says career and life coach Stacy S. Kim, founder of Life Junctions LLC. She agrees that we're all being constantly bombarded with things that are vying for our attention -- that interruptions are a fact of life, and distractions will keep coming, so naturally it becomes harder to focus on one thing at a time. However, says Kim, research shows that our brains aren't really able to truly focus on two things at the same time. Instead, they shift their focus so fast that it feels like we're working on two things at once. But guess what? We aren't. “You can be talking to someone on the phone, and then you glance down at your computer screen to check your email,” says Kim. “While you’re talking and then looking at the screen, the brain is actually switching back and forth at rapid speed.”

According to Kim, it might be more efficient to put on your time-management hat than to multitask. Her suggestion? Focus on one project at a time, but use a clever little device called a timer. “Set it for 20 minutes and ask yourself, ‘What's the right thing for me to do right now -- not what I should be doing, but what's right?’” she says. Whether that thing is planning a presentation or sending several emails, make a conscious choice about how you’re going to spend those minutes, then set the timer. When it rings, ask yourself, “Did I get my task done, or did I get distracted?” Over time, this technique will teach you how to focus on the task at hand, and you’ll not only get more done in the same amount of time, but the end product will be of higher quality.

New York City career coach Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional's Survival Guide, says that he works with clients who face aggressive deadlines, multiple priorities and what he calls “unreasonable expectations” every day -- and that those sorts of demands are the nature of today's labor market. “With fewer employees around to get the work done,” says Cohen, “many of us are expected to perform at levels that may be impossible to sustain over time.”

So what's a worker to do, especially in an economy where unemployment keeps knocking on the doors of millions of American workers? Per Cohen, you can prioritize your projects -- but make sure you don’t neglect the ones you'd rather not do, since those are quite likely the very projects that might be important to key stakeholders. His advice? Multitask by being “multilinear”: “Each project has a beginning, middle and end,” he says. “You need to figure out how to begin new projects while managing and completing others.”

To achieve this feat, Cohen suggests creating a spreadsheet to track the status of each project. That way, he says, “you can see what needs to happen right now and what you can hold off on. It’s an ongoing, real time, reliable system.” The goal? To move each project along until you reach a point where you can set it aside for a bit -- at which time you start a new project.

Some experts take a more tough-love approach; they say that multitasking is alive and well and very doable, and that it's really more a matter of how you direct your energy. Mental-toughness coach Steve Siebold, author of 177 Mental Toughness Secrets of the World Class, says sure, there are some people who say they can only focus on one task at a time. But he calls that nothing more than “an excuse.”

“Would you tell Barack Obama he can only focus on one task at a time?” asks Siebold. “Nothing would ever get done.” The secret to multitasking, he says, is to determine how much mental energy you need to direct toward each task.

“Let’s say we all have a hundred units of mental energy to direct toward tasks at any given time,” he says. “Tying your shoes might only require one unit, while driving your car may require thirty units. Playing a game of competitive chess or trying to solve a difficult problem may require all one hundred units.” The more important the task, he says, the more units of mental energy should be directed toward it -- something to keep in mind the next time you’re faced with many to-dos at once.