You’re Doing it Wrong: Multitasking is Not a Best Practice

You’re Doing it Wrong: Multitasking is Not a Best Practice

Faster, bigger, better, more efficiency, more effectiveness, more productivity, more, more, more!

 It seems like the only thing that matters nowadays is how to squeeze more productivity out of workers. Everything else seems to be a distraction. But what if we have it all wrong?

What if instead of faster, more, and bigger we focused on quality and job satisfaction? Wouldn’t everything else fall into place?

Don’t get me wrong, I think workers and managers should reduce waste and improve systems and processes. But there is a wrong way to do it, and that wrong way is multitasking.

I am not going to regurgitate all the research that shows that carbon-based humans are not particularly good at doing two tasks at once. We know this in our bones and it comes out in basic utterances all the time, “don’t play with your food,” “watch where you’re going,” “pay attention,” “don’t text while driving.” In nearly every situation in the modern world we are told to be mindful, thoughtful, and careful, but at work, we are told to multitask. We even try to ensure that workers will be ready to multitask on their first day by listing it as a requirement in job postings. How the heck do you know in advance that a worker will have to do 2 things at once? There are three problems with this: 1) you are micromanaging by telling workers how to do their jobs, 2) you may have designed the job poorly, and 3) you are prioritizing one technique over others with zero evidence to support its value.

Stop multitasking and stop asking others to do it. While you are at it, remove it from all job postings. It is a “worst practice.”

Most professionals know that doing any two things at the exact same time probably means you aren’t doing either very well. I am not saying that every task or project must be solved before a new one is begun. It’s perfectly OK to have 10 tabs open on your browser and multiple files open on your computer. We all have our own little tricks for staying on top of our responsibilities. But we must not confuse having multiple assignments with multitasking. We all can balance numerous responsibilities and multiple systems in the same day. The problem with valuing multitasking is cultural. We think the best way to communicate skill or value is by looking really really busy.

What if that is a sign of a lack of discipline instead of a sign of excellence?

Every time a task is interrupted by a notification or someone popping in your office, it takes minutes to get back on track. We should model good behavior and stop fetishizing looking frantic.

Quick anecdote: One of the most glaring examples of how we prioritize frenzy is at the bar. If there is a line of thirsty patrons at the bar, we are accustomed to seeing the bartender hustling fast to meet every customer’s demands. We expect to see bartenders pouring drinks, bussing the bar, restocking the bar, grabbing beer from the fridge, measuring ingredients for martinis, working the register…and much more. They are doing this to keep customers happy, but they are also doing it to maximize tips. At one of my favorite bars in Manhattan, there is one bartender who refuses to behave this way. With every single order he gets, he makes the drink as if he were doing it at home for a friend. There is no mess, no spilling, no frantic stressed look on his face. It’s deeply frustrating to watch him not rushing, but almost immediately you can tell that he knows better. He isn’t going to do a better job or even get a better tip from you by looking like a chicken with his head cut off. He is methodical. It’s just as refreshing as it is frustrating. And people are always lined up for him. He has a calming effect!

Really be honest with yourself if you are doing your best work while being distracted. People joke too much about having “ADHD” and glamorize being busy and distracted. These are not good things. Multitasking results in mistakes, misunderstandings, and stress.

It’s OK to have a lot going on and it’s OK to expect the same of your staff, but we really should not be encouraging people to engage in behavior that results in worse outcomes and burned out employees. 

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