“I’m an excellent multitasker.” Scan any young graduate’s resumé, listen in on any job interview or hiring seminar, and this phrase will undoubtedly come up within seconds. Our generation of young workers, career-driven and well-educated, is the product of a fully connected world, having grown up with constant stimulation. Our connectivity means that we are always keeping track of multiple things, a plethora of activities both online and off that always seem to demand our constantly shifting attention. Is this spreading of attention an actual skill? Are we the great multitaskers we claim to be, or do we all just have trouble paying attention?
Over the last few decades, as the pace of business accelerated, and the world became more globalized, the way people approached work and productivity began to change. Employers began to demand greater results and heavier workloads from their employees. As people took on ever-larger amounts of work, the need to balance, to juggle all the different tasks effectively, became an essential skill. Employers began to expect this ability and to prize it, and so it became a staple skill of the workplace, something needed to survive and succeed.
Over time, however, the lines have become blurred. Young people, technologically saavy but relatively sheltered from the more basic, pen-and-paper, sometimes monotonous work of their predecessors, began to claim themselves as multitaskers, people who could do everything all at once with little detriment. However, there is a very significant difference between time management—organizing oneself to ensure multiple tasks are completed in a timely manner—and true multitasking.
Actually, multitasking has rapidly grown into a contentious subject. Although there are many arguments for it, a growing body of research suggests that, despite its supposed necessity for success, multitasking doesn’t actually exist. Our brains may just not be wired to do multiple tasks at once. Why is it, then, that every young graduate, new intern or prospective hire flaunts their multitasking ability as a desirable trait?
It is precisely because we have an idea of multitasking in our heads (that is, time management) that doesn’t always pan out in reality. Instead of sitting down and writing our tasks in an agenda or schedule, we enter them in digital calendars and notes, send ourselves emails or reminders on our phones. Our generation has grown up with devices that give us not only unprecedented access to information, but constant connectivity that lures us into rapid distraction. Instead of putting our entire mental acuity into doing a single task well, we believe that trying to do multiple things at once inherently makes us more productive.
Research suggests, however, that the opposite is true. When we try to work on more than one task, there is a greater risk of error and miscalculation. Rather than doing one thing well, we end up doing two things not as well as we could have. Further, this distraction, this constant switching between tasks in the name of “enhanced productivity,” is starting to be seen as a negative trait, one that may impede success in our careers. Although a hiring manager may hear a new hire say “multitasker” and think “Great, I’m taking on someone who knows how to manage their time and be effective,” this “positive trait” can quickly manifest itself as work that appears careless, sloppy or unpolished. Particularly for young people new to the workforce and still trying to build a career foundation, this can lead to high stress, and in turn even worse performance. Yes, your attempts at multitasking may end up hurting your chances of success.
So what can we do? Simple: focus. Learning to focus on tasks is a vague but absolutely non-negotiable skill. It’s not easy: focus is one of those things that takes training and repetition, a bit willpower and a lot of self-correction. If you’ve spent your life attached to a computer, television and/or phone that provide constant, instant stimulation, overcoming your habit of distraction may seem positively insurmountable—but it can be done.
Organize yourself by writing down and preparing your tasks to be tackled sequentially and efficiently, in a way that makes the best use of your time. More importantly, however, disconnect yourself. Whenever you can, remove external stimuli and put yourself wholly into your work. Do you need to check that email, or can it wait? Turn off the phone, or maybe just put it on silent while you complete that big project due in a few hours. You’ll see results almost instantly: tasks get done faster and better, and you’ll feel a greater sense of accomplishment because of the level of detail you were able to put into the job.
Next time you catch yourself feeling frazzled as you try to juggle a million things all on the go… stop. Assess your situation and ask if your attempts at multitasking are really the right way to go. Your biology may not make you a great multitasker, but with some focus, time management and willpower, you can become an effective, organized worker. And your boss will love it.