A Contrary Position: Five Points in Defense of Multitasking

“Men: if you ever want to know what a woman’s mind feels like, imagine a browser with 2,587 tabs open. All. The. Time.” – Anonymous

If you’ve ever seen an article about multitasking, it probably included an image of someone with multiple arms typing, using a calculator, talking on the phone, and drinking coffee, all at once, like something out of Hindu mythology or Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics.

While women seem to multitask better than men—if we couldn’t, the race would probably have died out long ago—I’m still not a big fan of what’s often mistakenly called “multitasking.” In my opinion, both tend to waste more time than they save, while putting undue strain on those practicing them. For 97.5% of workers, we know for a fact multitasking doesn’t work as well as singletasking.

Recent generations, however, have become increasingly proficient at handling rapid change, absorbing or avoiding most of the distractions thrown their way, and juggling multiple tasks. This may be because Generation Y, Millennials, and the iGeneration (a.k.a. Generation Z) are more mentally flexible than previous generations—or they may be the next step in human mental evolution. As my kids have grown through their teens, I’ve seen them watch TV, chat on the phone, and do homework simultaneously, with no negative effects on their grades (although it does collectively take longer to do the homework, but hey, it’s entertainment).

Nonetheless, effective multitasking remains rare in the workforce, even among those of us weaned on constant change. That said, something close to it, really does save you time. Let’s look at a few examples.

  1. You’re a supertasker. About 2.5-3.0% of people can not only multitask effectively, many do better work as they multitask. Researchers demonstrated this in a series of studies where people tried to handle three confusing tasks at once. It turns out “supertasker” brains respond differently than single-taskers: the parts of their brain that ought to heat up due to overactivity while multitasking remain cool, suggesting that for these individuals, multitasking is automatic.

  2. You can do two things at once if they don’t involve the same part of the brain. This isn’t uncommon, though like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time, it may take practice and coordination. It’s certainly easier to sing along with the radio as you work or select music for an event while balancing your checkbook than to balance that checkbook while doing your departmental budget.

  3. You switch tasks rapidly and smoothly. Others swear by processes that, if not true multitasking, come close. Rather than truly doing two things at once, you may rapidly alternate between activities, giving each a time-slice—just like a computer. If you can do this without getting confused or taking forever to readjust to each task, you’ll certainly keep yourself from becoming bored.

  4. You’ve become a multitasker by practice. When you have no other choice, you may learn to do tasks simultaneously or switch tasks often, especially when you’re waiting for others to complete a task, or people are constantly walking into your office to ask you questions. Back in the days when it might take a computer minutes to open a big file (even as long as half an hour—and yes, this sometimes happened in the ’80s and ’90s), my colleagues and I often turned to paperwork, quick calls, or other tasks in the interim. We couldn’t even have two programs open at once back then! (We also walked to work barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways.) Nowadays, we get so frustrated “waiting,” many of us drop into another simple task, even if the wait’s only a minute or so.

  5. You’re more focused under pressure. The same study proving women do better at multitasking concluded it’s because they’re more systematic under pressure. Some people swear they are at their productive best the day before they go on vacation. If you have this capacity, you may take less time to complete or switch tasks than other people, meeting a casual definition of multitasking.

More with Less

The lesson remains: most of the time, most of us really do work better by focusing on a single task. Some of us become masters at working so fast sequentially it looks like we’re multitasking when we’re not. Clearly, though, true multitasking isn’t impossible, and it looks like we all need to improve at it in the future. We may be evolving in that direction; it already seems second nature for some people. By the time the Millennials retire, the workforce of that era may wonder what the big deal was about something they take for granted.


About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email Christine@TheProductivityPro.com, or CONTACT US.

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  1. Angela Digmann says:

    Really have enjoyed your thoughts on multi-tasking/supertasking. Lots of food for thought!