Multi tasking: When to do it and When not to do it

It seems that, in almost every work environment, people talk about multitasking.  In every field, other than perhaps repetitive assembly lines, it seems that many jobs require doing, or being ready to do, more than 1 task within a given work shift, hour, or minute.  I know mine involves: consulting, marketing, managing staff, strategic planning, accounting (accounts payable and billable), proposal writing, and more.  And, who knows what I’ll be doing when the phone rings?  And, even if the phone has rung, what I’ll be doing when on the call depends on who is calling and why.  There are times I can listen to the call and continue to pay bills – especially if I’m on hold (thank goodness for speaker phones), but if it is a client or prospect, my focus changes.  I’ve read in management research reports that there is evidence multi-tasking can lead to decreased accuracy and performance.  That should be no surprise, but as companies streamline and try to do more with less, multi-tasking is unavoidable.  Maintaining accuracy and performance requires a skill set that not everyone has. Inquiring about a person’s ability to multi task is standard in our pre-employment interviews.  Interestingly, a few people have honestly said they prefer working on a task from start to finish before starting a new task.  It is great they know that about themselves, but unfortunately, it is not a good indicator of success in our world.  Our team regularly multi tasks by working on a report, preparing materials for the next project, booking travel arrangements, doing video post production work and maintaining social media campaigns.  All of these tasks, and more, are  juggled daily.  The fundamental way to maintain accuracy and performance is through the use of lists, checklists, and schedules of work to be performed.  It is only those who can be self organized who succeed in these environments.  And, on the other hand, there are times when multitasking is a BAD idea.  When one has high level of concentrated, cognitive work, it is much better to enter a “cone of silence” mode and close the door, put out a do not disturb sign, and focus on the work at hand.  The open door closes, the phone goes on “DND” and data can be analyzed, charts made, a report can get written.  These are the things to do without interruption.  One must be assertive in some work environments to make it clear that a particular task deserves, and is getting, the person’s full attention.  Training employees on this, and ensuring everyone in the workplace respects the need to focus, are critical to success in an environment, like ours, where we are always working on multiple cases, multiple projects and with multiple clients.

There are times to multitask and times to work on one project until its completion. Think about it. How many of us have ever hired a general contractor or other home renovation person, only to have him work a couple of hours at our house, then leave in the middle of the project to work at someone else’s house for a couple of hours? (Note to the reader: I do not intend to be sexist when I say, “him” in reference to a someone who does home renovations; I have never had the pleasure of working with a woman in this capacity. Therefore, I do not know the work habits of anyone, except men, when it comes to construction type work.) Would it be more efficient for the contractor to work at one location, until the project is completed rather than alienate multiple homeowners, simultaneously, due to the constant skipping around from place to place? I don’t know, but it sure seems to me that it would be. In my business, which is nothing like a construction business, everyone must know when to multitask and when to concentrate on one task until its completion. Although we manage multiple clients and their cases on any given day, our work requires concentration, focused attention, and for me, silence, when performing certain tasks. For example, when I am reading a client’s case documents, writing a survey for our research participants to complete, or performing statistical analyses of data obtained from the surveys, I close my office door (which, when closed, displays a cute embroidered sign that says, “GO AWAY”), turn on the “do not disturb” function on my phone, and work diligently on one task until I am finished. Because our office is in a suburban location, I often use noise cancelling headphones to silence the annoying sounds of barking dogs, lawn mowers, and other distracting noises. During these times of concentrated effort, I never accept a telephone call, check my email, or do anything other than complete my work on behalf of the client. Doing anything that distracts me from my work, including multitasking on another client’s case, would not be in anyone’s best interests. Like many things in life, knowing when to multitask and when to concentrate on one task until its completion is a sign of maturity, intelligence, and dedication to one’s clients.

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