A Word on Multi-Tasking
There has been a rumor going around asserting that it is “impossible to multi-task.” I suppose a declaration of this kind allows those who aren’t skilled at multitasking to feel triumphant, but very common examples of real life multitasking prove this theory incorrect. If we couldn’t multi-task, then:
  • When driving, we couldn’t look both ways and behind us at an intersection, activate a turn signal and apply pressure to the brakes (all within 15 seconds).
  • A mother couldn’t hold her child on her back while she walked to the store or while she was making dinner.
  • We wouldn’t be able to guide cloth through a sewing machine and watch to ensure the stitching is straight, while also accelerating the pedal that runs the motor.
  • Musicians couldn’t sing while they play an instrument, let alone dance while they are doing both.
  • A police officer wouldn’t be able to direct traffic and be cognizant of the crowd around him/her.
The point I’m making is that there are degrees of what is possible, practical and necessary. Multitasking is an important skill for many reasons, especially if there is a significant investment in the outcome (e.g., not getting in a car wreck, your child’s safety or perhaps getting paid to perform a service or provide entertainment). If the failure to take command of necessary actions impacts your safety, the safety of others or your livelihood, then multitasking is clearly a problem. Analyzing your steps to determine where the breakdowns occur, and implementing strategies to resolve them, is a better investment of time than arguing a case for why “multitasking isn’t possible.”

Clearly, we don’t want to put ourselves or others at risk. If we can’t look forward as we drive and also check the rearview mirror, that’s a problem. It means we probably shouldn’t be driving. In similar terms, if we are unable to talk on the phone and type simultaneously, then we probably shouldn’t work in a call center. If we lack the ability to carry on a conversation with someone and listen for conversations/noises around us on a playground, then perhaps we shouldn’t be the playground monitor. It doesn’t mean any of the above examples are impossible skills to master, it just means some people shouldn’t be doing them.

If you are currently considering work that requires multitasking, it is critical to practice under the same circumstances to determine if you can do it, before jumping in feet first. Multitasking efficiently and effectively is all relative. To know if you will be successful, it’s imperative to have a clear understanding of the desired outcome. Sometimes accuracy is first and foremost, yet other times, the goal isn’t perfection. If you tend to get caught up in detail and pour over and over information or processes to ensure they are absolutely correct, occupations that demand a high degree of accuracy, such as engineering or accounting, could be a very strong fit. In other situations, where exact detail is valued less, it could cause you to lag behind, miss deadlines, or worse, fail to respond at all in a critical situation requiring an immediate answer.

Sometimes reacting with a reasonable response and following up with an elaborate answer at a more appropriate time is the best course of action at the moment. If a pipe is leaking, it makes more sense to immediately plug the leak with whatever you have on hand until a plumber can be reached, than to stop to determine the pipe size and water flow capacity while the water is rising around your feet. It is important to recognize when the situation demands a change in attention without notice – like answering phones or having your work constantly interrupted to answer co-workers’ questions, a different action is required. A once highly valued skill like accuracy may become a liability when it becomes impossible to perform other requirements.

In a world where more is expected to be done with less, multitasking seems to be a required, if not critical skill, for many jobs. Choose your work (and battles) so you don’t find yourself in a situation that isn’t working for you or your employer. Become aware of how much you can manage at one time, and when challenged, identify ways to improve your responses. Another option is to simply decide to look for other work that is less demanding. The bottom line is that your response is the only thing that can change. Believing that multitasking isn’t possible or necessary might not help you succeed.