For sure, top performers carry heavy workloads. Expectations are high to get more done with fewer resources in less time. Unscheduled disruptions and unanticipated distractions seem to be a common occurrence too. So it means sense that managers would place so much importance on the “skill” of multitasking.
One of the personality traits included in our pre-employment assessment tests is multitasking. Whenever a candidate “scores” low on multitasking, meaning he prefers to perform one task at a time, managers want to immediately disqualify him without ever considering that multitasking is bad in the long term.
But is multitasking really a “skill?” Is it really a behavior managers want to encourage?
It doesn’t take much research to discover that the very job skill that managers want the most might be one of the things that leads to lost productivity and poor performance. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), rapid “shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.” Think about that. The very same skill that many of us relish and point to as the key to our success may be costing us 16 hours every week.
Researchers at the University of Utah’s Department of Psychology agree. “Perceptions of the ability to multi-task were found to be badly inflated,” they found. “In fact, the majority of participants judged themselves to be above average in the ability to multi-task.”
The APA describes three types of multitasking:
- Performing two tasks simultaneously. This includes talking on the phone while driving or answering email during a webinar.
- Switching from one task to another without completing the first task. We’ve all been right in the middle of focused work when an urgent task demands our attention; this is one of the most frustrating kinds of multitasking, and often the hardest to avoid.
- Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. It almost doesn’t seem like multitasking at all, but our minds need time to change gears in order to work efficiently.
Multitasking may not even be the right word to describe the behavior. It’s a misnomer. Our brains really aren’t wired to more than one task at a time (although new research suggests that the brains of young people might be getting re-wired. So stay tuned!) Instead we switch tasks. Unfortunately task switching is expensive. Not only does it multitasking decrease productivity but multitaskers make more errors and take more time to complete tasks.
Even if multitasking is a skill worth pursuing in candidates, the search is like finding a needle in a haystack since only about 2% of the population can juggle multiple tasks without performance deteriorating. When put to the test in cognitive research, over 97% failed multi-tasking.
So it might be time for managers to admit that multitasking is bad for productivity. How can they re-frame the behaviors they want to get better results?
- Think “reprioritzing.” No reasonable manager really expects an employee to do 2 or 3 things at once. What they really want is results. The research is pretty convincing that multitasking is bad at producing meaningful results.
- The ability to re-prioritize quickly and appropriately does take some skill and discipline. And those traits can be measures. Instead of focusing on the multitasking trait, I recommend clients focus on traits like work pace, the desire to keep busy and active, and task closure, the need to finish what one starts. Lower need to multitask may actually improve productivity in those cases because it indicates the employee may stay focused on what is right in front of him.
- The need to keep busy but stay focused on getting things done also means the employee needs good judgement. Sometimes an employee who is juggling many tasks and multitasking is bad at prioritizing. Prioritization requires an employee to make many decisions. Is this what I should be working on right now? What other tasks require my attention? It requires that employees have the ability to stop, look, and listen frequently to reassess priorities.
It’s time for managers to admit that sometimes multitasking is bad for productivity, and indicates poor time-management skills and prioritizing. By assessing traits such as work pace, need for task closure, and critical thinking skills, both managers and employees can improve productivity, reduce errors, and lower stress.