Multitasking Mythology

Have you ever been complimented for multitasking?

Have you ever been criticized for multitasking?

It is not multitasking - it is fast switching and good self management.

I have.  I’ve heard some people claim that they are great multitaskers.  I’ve also heard there is no such thing; humans can only focus on one thing at a time.  Therefore multitaskers are delusional.

I’m not going to choose sides.  In fact, I’m going to take the high road, and without trying to multitask, look at the arguments and put some pieces together.

First off, working on a task.  Tasks are big things, like writing memos, answering a crazy customer question.  Chewing gum and walking don’t count.

Secondly, doing quality work.  It’s agreed that the best work is done when you focus on that work.

Thirdly, doing more work.  In today’s world, we don’t get a choice to do one thing at a time.  You can be writing your memo when that customer calls.  You have to put down the memo and pick up the customer.  No choice.  You’re doing more work.  More importantly, what you’ve just done is …

Fourthly, task switching.  Stopping one task and focusing on another is switching.  Some people can do it fast.  Some people take time.  I’ve seen it.  I’ve hired people who take their time switching between tasks.  For someone like me (fast switcher) it’s agonizing waiting for them to catch up.  But switching isn’t the only problem they usually have, because there is also …

Fifthly, task choosing.  Yes, you must choose the task you switch to.  If you are “juggling” ten tasks, you have to be able to coordinate all ten so that each is finished on time, you spend as much time as necessary to do them ADEQUATELY, and switching in such a way so that it minimizes the energy you expend on switching.  This process goes by many names, but essentially is managing yourself.  Some can be great switchers, but terrible choosers.  Others might be opposite.

Guess what?  If you can manage yourself well, AND switch between tasks fairly efficiently, then people can call you a multitasker.  You know that you are working on only one task at a time, but to them it looks like you are working on ten.

For someone who switches very slowly, or for someone who can’t manage themselves very well, then multitasking doesn’t exist.  And they probably don’t want to admit it exists in other people as well.

And they are right.  It doesn’t exist.  It’s one of those derivative qualities we like to talk about while ignoring what goes on underneath.  Multitasking doesn’t exist.  Fast switching and good self-management does exist.

So the next time you hear about multitaskers, and you want to take someone to task about the subject, just point them this way.

Or do what I do.

Switch to something else.

It’s more efficient.