Multitasking is the norm for most workers, both employees and owners, in today’s world. There is a research evidence that multitasking is not always the most productive work style, but it seems to be the reality for most jobs. Over the years we have learned to pre-screen prospective employees on their ability to multitask. Most people say they do this routinely. However, occasionally we have asked this of people who are honest enough to admit they need to do one thing at a time. There are truly repetitive jobs in the world, manufacturing environments come to mind, and they are probably a better fit for someone who acknowledges that preference. But, when dealing with the public or a firm’s clients in a service business, whether it is in the hospitality world, at an airline, or as a provider of professional services, rarely does one have the luxury of focusing on one task through completion. Even while writing this short text, I’ve had a phone call and several emails. But, juggling tasks is not easy and it is less so for some people than others. A crucial component is personal organization. We encourage employees to take notes, make lists, etc., just as we do to keep on task and to try to keep something from falling into a crack. Learning to keep lots of balls in the air is a skill that develops over time. Prioritizing is important and it is important for managers to help employees prioritize. That said, there is time to enter the “cone of silence” and focus closely on detail work to ensure accuracy. Know when that time comes.
The definition of multitasking varies with individuals. In my job, I do not work on several tasks at exactly the same time; if I did, nothing would get accomplished. Instead, my work requires me to prepare for upcoming cases, including research projects such as mock trials and focus groups, and consulting, such as jury selection. As I prepare for upcoming work, I am also working on projects that require my immediate attention, such as conducting research sessions in a faraway location or selecting a jury in a courthouse. Finally, while these tasks are being performed, I am often in the process of preparing reports of the research findings on a case on which we just finished. In addition, I have to supervise my staff on the performance of their jobs, including tasks related to getting ready for an upcoming project (for example, making travel arrangements and ensuring all our equipment is in working order and packed to take with us); tasks required to perform our work with attorneys and mock jurors (including operating video recording equipment used to make a permanent record of our work); and tasks required to prepare the “deliverables” we provide to our clients following their research program. If we are unable to perform one or more tasks related to one client’s case because we are busy performing tasks related to another client’s case, we are guaranteed to alienate this client, in much the same way as a college professor will never consider it an excuse for being unprepared that a student was busy studying for another professor’s class. As I always say, “organization is the key to success”; without an ability to organize and prioritize one’s work, it is impossible to perform it to the high level demanded by our clients.