We’ve all met someone who claims they work best when they multitask–either that, or we’ve been that person ourselves. But how accurate is that claim?
We’re going to take a balanced approach to the idea of multitasking, weighing up its pros and cons, to arrive at a final conclusion on its value. This will help show whether it’s truly beneficial to increasing productivity in the workplace, or whether employees would be better served working differently.
Before we get to the pros and cons, let’s consider what’s made multitasking so well-known.
Why multitasking at work has become popular
When you start your work day, what’s your first order of business?
Many people go straight to their email inbox to reply to the messages waiting there. Others hop on a call or join a meeting, while others start the day by opening a document and continuing an ongoing task.
What happens when these tasks all need to be done in very little time? You can choose to prioritize, but that can lead to some tasks being left by the wayside.
Alternatively, you can multitask.
Multitasking makes it harder to slack off or leave certain tasks undone (more on this shortly). This makes it an attractive option to some, and goes a long way towards explaining its popularity. It’s also common among workers that find themselves in a lot of virtual meetings; they tend to check their emails or work on other small tasks while listening.
Multitasking: The pros
Since multitasking is popular among plenty of modern employees, it’s well worth considering what earns it that popularity. The following advantages help it feel worthwhile.
When your manager checks on your progress with a task, you don’t want to have to explain that you haven’t had time to get to it yet. Multitasking is immensely useful in this instance.
By its nature, multitasking relies on working on at least two tasks at a time. That means you’ll be making progress on both of those tasks, which often leads to getting more done in less time.
You may also find that you complete one objective before the other(s). In that case, you’ll have done at least a bit of work on all the others–and that means avoiding the dreaded blank document.
Multitasking means getting more tasks done within a set period of time. That means it involves boosting productivity, something which both managers and team members are likely to be pleased about.
Plus, if you’re hoping to work out how to get a promotion in your current position, improving your productivity levels can never hurt.
There’s not much time to procrastinate when you’re doing multiple tasks at once.
Procrastination can often be the direct consequence of feeling bored, or stuck in a task. This then drives people to seek entertainment or distraction elsewhere, such as on social media.
However, when those same people instead switch to a different task, their drive to procrastinate is lowered. This is because a new task is instantly engaging, and therefore not boring. It’s also not going to be affected by the same problem that makes it hard to complete the original task, which addresses the problem of feeling stuck.
Boosts brain power
By always being engaged with at least two tasks, you’re working out your brain. It’s always in problem-solving mode, which means it’s always active.
That, in turn, leads to greater brain power on the whole. So, by multitasking, you can improve your brain power in the long term, which makes for more productive work.
Increases your employability
If you’re developing your skills or running a side hustle while you’re working your regular job, you can make yourself look more attractive to prospective employers.
For example, you may be managing a property portfolio alongside your day job, switching between your company’s online work space and tools like Sage property accounting software. Or maybe your side hustle is graphic design and you’re balancing a full-time career with designing logos with Adobe Illustrator software.
By multitasking, in this way, you can demonstrate a wide range of skills and your ability to work on multiple projects at once, making you a desirable candidate.
On top of this, multitasking can help you to develop skills that could help you change career or even turn your side hustle into your main source of income.
Helps you find a better work-life balance
When you get more work done in a single day, that means earning more money without sacrificing your free time to get tasks done. That leads to a better work-life balance.
In other words, multitasking helps you leave work at work, since you’re getting everything done within your office hours.
Multitasking: The cons
No approach to work comes without disadvantages. The following cons are associated with multitasking, and are worth considering before you start trying to multitask.
Constantly switching tasks is inefficient
Not everyone can find their flow in just a few minutes. For some people, it’s very ineffective to swap to a new task before the old one is complete, as they find that it disrupts their flow and makes it hard to concentrate.
Also, jumping into a new task and immediately making progress is not a universal experience. For those to whom this doesn’t come naturally, switching tasks regularly is very counterproductive.
Can cause mental blocks
When your ideas are flowing for a specific project, the last thing you want to do is have to put a stop to those ideas just to force yourself to think about something completely different. This leads to mental blocks and makes it hard to finish tasks.
In fact, the mental blocks that come from switching tasks too much can drop productivity drastically:
Decreases periods of creativity
Creativity can’t flourish on command, and for many people, this means multitasking is impossible when creativity is required. They can’t force creative ideas to surface, so they can only work on tasks that don’t call for it, which means shortening periods spent being creative.
Reduces ability to collaborate
Having great teamwork in the workplace is vital. However, when everyone is hopping between tasks all the time, it’s tough for teams to make time to work together as a cohesive unit. Multitasking is more of a solo approach.
Weighing up the pros & cons
Multitasking deserves its place in the modern workplace–though it isn’t the end-all.
Many employees work more productively when they can switch between tasks at will, which means that letting them multitask increases both their satisfaction and productivity. That’s a valuable fact, and needs to be given due consideration.
That said, multitasking isn’t useful for everyone. Mandating it means shutting out the people for whom it doesn’t work, while restricting collaboration opportunities.
So, while it’s important to allow for multitasking, it shouldn’t be forced on employees if it isn’t a good fit.
How to multitask better
Not everyone can multitask effectively. In some cases, this is because their working style simply doesn’t suit multitasking; in others, it’s because they don’t know how to multitask effectively.
That’s why we’ve compiled a brief list of the best practices you can use to take your multitasking skills to the next level.
Find your flow and learn how to get in the zone
Just as it’s important to put in the work to keep your eyes healthy when you spend hours looking at a screen, it’s crucial to find your flow, to figure out what works for you, and to adjust your working style accordingly.
Maybe you need to work in bursts, focusing fully on one task for 20 minutes before switching to another, and so on, cycling through tasks one by one. You can do this using the Pomodoro Method, pictured below. Or perhaps you work better when you’re regularly switching between two tasks.
As you’re searching for your flow, it’s also important to note how you get in the zone. Do you need complete silence, or do you concentrate better when you’re surrounded by ambient chatter? Do you struggle to get in the zone without a hot beverage, or a snack?
Try different things out, and see what helps you find your flow and focus.
Use tools to help automate tasks
When it comes to working productively, few things will help as much as using automation to handle repetitive tasks.
For example, you could use a project management tool to automatically schedule meetings and appointments, so you don’t have to. Or, if you’re running a side hustle, you could use dedicated freelancer accounting software to track your cash flow and easily categorize your financial documents.
There are also plenty of project management tools that will automatically complete tasks based on certain criteria or share updates with stakeholders when a project’s status changes, freeing up valuable time you can use elsewhere.
Relying on modern tools simplifies your tasks, leaving you more room to multitask efficiently, without wasting any time.
Set realistic goals
Sure, we’d all love to finish a whole week’s work every Monday and spend the rest of the week relaxing. That’s not realistic though, and trying to accomplish impossible feats will only stress you out and lead to overworking.
Instead, take the time to set realistic, achievable, measurable goals.
Having these goals helps you stay on task. It also gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction when you do reach a goal, which in turn provides motivation to keep working on other tasks. That means productive, useful multitasking.
While it’s not ideal for everyone, multitasking can be a fantastic tool in the right hands. If your employees find they work best a certain way, it’s generally a good idea to lean into that method.
With that said, it’s important to ensure everyone’s multitasking right.
By following our tips, you can help the employees who already favor multitasking use it to its full potential. This helps them work productively in a way that feels natural and comfortable to them.