Why you should stop multitasking at work

Put the phone down and walk away, nice and slowly. It's better to be known for doing your job well than doing it fast.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 04 Jul 2016

Multitasking is the millennial way of life. With all the information in the world available instantly at the touch of a button (well, screen), the modern mind is being conditioned to process lots of tasks at once.

This may sound like a productivity nerd’s dream come true, but there is plenty of evidence that multitasking is a false economy. Those classified by Stanford University researchers to be heavy multitaskers, for instance, were found to have poor memories and to be unable to resist distractions, to the detriment of their work.

Management guru Charles Handy summed it up nicely: ‘If you’re not careful, multitasking means you don’t do anything very well. If you switch from this task to that, half your mind is still on the task you left behind.’

Of course, there’s always been a trade off between quality and speed. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to concentrate on one thing at a time either, especially when others are demanding your attention right now.

Besides, the future of work may well involve a shift from permanent jobs to a ‘gig economy’, which would make it all the harder to resist the pull of multitasking.

But while the clamour may be for getting work done now rather than done well, it's perhaps short-sighted to make speed your professional USP. 

In the future, we're also going to be increasingly competing with machines, which will always be better at spinning plates than humans are. Creativity, deep thought and good judgment are the areas where humans stand the best chance in that job market, and none of these are helped by the intense distractions of multitasking.

It’s telling that Silicon Valley is already moving in the other direction. When MT met Google’s Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky to discuss how the tech giant solves big problems in just five days, they showed us what they term the ‘distraction free iPhone’.

‘We don’t have any kind of instant messaging or chat, Facebook, Twitter etc. We don’t even have email on our phones. You can still use the phone for all the things that are amazing and futuristic, like booking a cab or finding directions, but you’re not being constantly interrupted and pinged,’ explained Zeratsky.

If even Google is moving away from multitasking, it may be time to pay attention - it could do wonders for your career to get a reputation for doing one task well rather than several simultaneously.

So don’t envy that ambitious intern who manages to post on the company’s Instagram, reply to emails and eat a sandwich all while taking an active part in meetings – she may well be the one with egg on her face when all’s said and done (possibly literally, depending on the sandwich...).

A word of warning though, shutting out the modern world at work is almost embarrassingly difficult. We like to practise what we preach here at MT, so in the spirit of this article I resolved not to check my emails while writing. I managed 15 minutes.

‘They’re suckers for irrelevancy’ -The myth of multitasking 

Picture credit: Andrew Malone/Flickr


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