The Myth of Multitasking

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Rosemary Tator and Alesia Latson

The multitasking phenomenon has been a topic of discussion for many years. Let us say here that you may think you can do two or three different things using different senses at the same time, but experience tells us—and should tell you as well—that you can’t—not without a sharp drop in quality.

True, our bodies are wonderfully created to handle many different tasks at once. However, just as there are limits to how much oxygen we can have in our bloodstream before the oxygen reaches a dangerous level, there are limits to how much we can multitask before it overwhelms our capacity to be effective.

Multitasking is not always bad; in fact, there are times when it is positively beneficial. When left unexamined, however, multitasking has a cost. And before you know it, you could be in critical care because multitasking doesn’t have any symptoms. You feel good because you and everyone around you can see that you are getting things done. People see multitasking as a sign of strength. It shows how talented we are. However, we often don’t know when enough is enough.

Structures to Avoid Multitasking
Do you feel powerless over multitasking? Like being in a recovery program, where you find people to support you to break your addiction, you, too, may need a support structure to stay focused on (or “stay present to”) who or what is in front of you.

For example, before a conference call with a client, give yourself five minutes to clear your mind and eliminate distractions. Clean off your desk and make sure there is nothing on the computer screen other than what you are doing with the client. Create and keep an expected outcome of the call in front of you so that you can stay focused. It takes muscle; it takes conscious effort.

Try telling yourself, “Nothing else is important right now. For the next hour, I can’t do anything else anyway, so let me relax and enjoy this call.” You want to be present to what you are going to accomplish on the call so that you can create that outcome with the client. Staying focused and in the moment will help you avoid multitasking.

Discerning When and When Not to Multitask
In pursuit of being effective, it is important to discern when it does and doesn’t make sense to multitask. By setting up a structure, you can make room for your habit by choosing when to multitask and when not to. Then, when there is blank space in your calendar, or when you are off somewhere on a walk, you can let your habit out of the box.

Then there are times to say, “Okay, habit, you’ve had your time; I’m focused now.” Once you have a structure in place that allows you to stay focused, if you drift off, oops, you drifted off, but at least you know it and can get back on track again.

There are great benefits to multitasking. However, what we need to ask ourselves is when do the benefits outweigh the costs?

Multitasking per se is not bad. It can be an asset when doing things that don’t require our full attention, but we need to discern when multitasking is appropriate and when it is not. Like yelling in a library, there are times when multitasking does not suit the situation. We’ve certainly seen what can happen if we try to multitask while driving.

When you see multitasking as a strength, you must choose when to use that strength. That’s all. There’s no reason to vilify it. It is a matter of discerning when it is time to multitask.

Excerpted, with permission of the publisher, from More Time for You: A Powerful System to Organize Your Work and Get Things Done by Rosemary Tator and Alesia Latson. Copyright 2011, Rosemary Tator and Alesia Latson. Published by AMACOM.

About the Author(s)

Rosemary Tator and Alesia Latson are coauthors of More Time for You: A Powerful System to Organize Your Work and Get Things Done. Rosemary Tator is principal partner of 1beffective ™. Alesia Latson is a consultant, facilitator, public speaker, and principal of the Latson Leadership Group.