Multi-Tasking and Workplace Efficiency

A cartoon businesswoman juggling many tasks

A number of recent articles have addressed the fact that multi-tasking is having a negative impact on our personal lives. That is no doubt true, but it inspires another question that is as important or even more so for professionals and employers: What role does multi-tasking play in workplace efficiency?

Merriam-Webster defines multi-tasking as “the performance of multiple tasks at one time.” Simple enough, and it seems that most jobs require this ability today, judging by job descriptions of open positions and reports from employees all across the country. So clearly, multi-tasking is the accepted norm in the workplace. But does performing multiple tasks at the same time actually increase efficiency?

Despite its name, when we engage in multi-tasking we are not really performing the activities simultaneously but rather attending to one and then another, switching our focus quickly (and often repeatedly). Because the human brain is not equipped to truly manage two or more activities simultaneously the way a computer can, Psychology Today has called the process “task switching.”

Task switching is up to 40% less efficient, demanding more time and energy than we expend when focusing on one task at a time. Logically, our goal should be strengthening the ability to sustain focus on a single task – performing one thing efficiently so that we can quickly move on to other projects – while maintaining the flexibility to take on another task out of order when priority levels change.

That makes organizational skills and adaptability more critical in the workplace than the ability to multi-task. Think about it: would you rather hire someone who is adept at switching focus rapidly or someone who can schedule projects accurately, meet deadlines, course-correct gracefully, and reschedule appropriately when deadlines or project parameters change?

Identifying candidates with these characteristics isn’t always a straightforward matter, as applicants frequently misjudge their own abilities in these areas. There are numerous suggestions available online to help you evaluate current employees and potential hires to gauge time management skills and flexibility. However, here are two very simple measures that shouldn’t be overlooked:

  1. How often does the employee or candidate use a personal mobile device in the office? While not necessarily related to skills or commitment, the frequency with which someone checks a mobile device can be an indicator of focus. There’s nothing wrong with checking texts and emails on breaks, but excessive use can indicate a need to switch attention frequently and an inability to sustain a single focus on an assigned task. The habit, along with the relative brief attention span it indicates, can also negatively impact job performance.
  2. How prepared is the person for meetings, presentations or interviews? Showing up late for an interview or habitually doing so for meetings is an obvious red flag that employers can’t afford to ignore. But more subtle indicators of time management and adaptability are also in play. A lack of preparedness may reflect poor planning or time management skills that may show up in sub-optimal work. And although there can be many causes for less-than-stellar presentation skills, getting flustered by unexpected questions or displaying difficulty moving from one point to the next are signs that adaptability skills may not be well developed.

Workdays are increasingly busy for many if not most Americans these days; the ability to rapidly shift focus to juggle competing priorities and manage emerging needs is definitely a skill to be desired. However, we do ourselves and our employees a disservice when we mistake it for real efficiency or rank it above the ability to maintain focus. The skills are distinct, but both are valuable, and both must be present in the workplace to achieve optimal business efficiency.


Written by Rally Kamenova; Outsourced Accounting Principal.