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4 Steps to Successful Multitasking

Debra Sunohara

Nowadays we all suffer from the same condition; my time is too short and my to-do list is too long.

Most of us resort to multitasking – usually as a necessity to meet work expectations. We have to multitask, don’t we? The real question: should we?

Gen Y’s have had lots of practice in the art of multitasking thanks to their involvement in social media. They are adept at integrating technology into their work habits. Some researchers even suggest that taking 2 minutes per hour to escape via social media helps maintain workers’ focus, creativity and efficiency over the work day.  (Read our new eBook: Leadership and the Intergenerational Divide for more on Gen Y in the workforce)

Multitasking has been accused of being and doing many things:

  • Unproductive, interruptive, inefficient and stressful
  • Blurring your clarity and ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information
  • Degrading short and long-term memory, and your ability to organize memories
  • Decreasing creativity
  • Dividing focus and attention
  • Making us more prone to error, reducing the quality of work, and increasing project/rework costs
  • Detrimental to your health

What is your ‘time cost’?

Once you’ve been interrupted by an e-mail, tweet, text message, or phone call do you go and do something else or do you return to the original task? A Microsoft Research Labs study found that 40% of the time, the interrupted workers shifted to a different task.

Depending on what kind of a work setting you are in, you may very well have to switch from computer work to phone calls or talking to co-workers much of the time. But, if your concentrated task time is coming in less than 30 minutes intervals, then how much is the loss of efficiency costing your organization?

What is the ‘time cost’ of switching tasks?

It is widely accepted that the time it takes to shift increases with the complexity of the task.

If you shift tasks frequently, then you are likely spending an even higher percentage of your time dealing with switching contexts than actually working. A Basex study of 1,000 of its employees (including managers) revealed that 2.1 hours per day were lost to interruptions. That is 26% of an average work day wasted!

Focus your attention

Some believe that there is no such thing as ‘multitasking’; productivity is about time management and the way to get things done is to prioritise tasks instead of jumping from one to another.

Leatherman-250x333There are any number of resources and approaches to personal organization and prioritization that are available. Some classic examples:

When is it okay?

The question remains, can we realistically live a modern-day 24/7 lifestyle without multitasking? Like so many things in life, it seems to me that it is really about balance.

Each of us must find the right personal mix of multitasking and balance this with yoga, meditation, or whatever works for you to ‘quiet the mind’.  Failure to create this personal balance will result in mental burnout, anxiety, and even depression.

Being a chronic multitasker myself, I believe the question needs to become: When is it okay to multitask and when is it not?

After a review of the studies on multitasking, I did find that I needed to take a step back and reflect on whether or not I multitask efficiently in my day to day life. I have come to the conclusion that when I am in front of my computer I either need to:

a)  focus on one task for a minimum of 30 minutes, or;

b)  choose tasks that allow me to use continuous partial attention.

But outside of this...I can indeed multitask efficiently (within reason).

4 Steps to Successful Multitasking

1.    Determine that multitasking is right for you

  • Does trying to multitask fatigue or stress you?
  • Do you create more work for yourself when you multitask?

2.    Decide when you can and cannot multitask

In general - if the context switch is great moving from one task to another, then the multitasking will likely take a toll:

  • on performance,
  • incur some memory loss,
  • create some rework.

If the context switch is small, you have the green light!

When in doubt, you can always use the Human error assessment and reduction technique (HEART) to evaluate the probability of a human error being committed while completing a task, and decide from there how focussed you should be during that task.

3.    Identify the tools that will facilitate your multitasking

  • Collaborative tools
  • Task boards – highly visual reminders
  • Notes – placemark where you are on a task so coming back to it is an easier context switch
  • Qualify and screen information and interruptions – not all are equally important or useful
  • Checklists – prioritization and ranking of tasks
  • Delegating – does it even need to be your task

4.    Find your personal balance

What do you do to find the equilibrium between the demand side of your psychic energy (concentration, attention, focus, etc.) and the supply side (yoga, meditation, running, exercise, hobbies, etc.).


The bottom line is that until we see some documented research on the effects of persistent multitasking (psychological, behavioural, anthropological or other) it is unlikely that many of us will drastically curb our reliance on multitasking.

How do you multitask? Has reading this blog made you reconsider your approach to work?  Do you ever evaluate the attention level required on a task by task basis?


Very informative blog Debra. It definitely makes one think about how one handles work throughout the day.If you’re someone who spends their day working at a computer screen, and is serious about doing some multitasking, I would suggest using two monitors. The added width will let you have more application windows open at the same time. This adds a lot of productivity. Does anyone know a link of a tutorial that shows how to set up a two monitor work station? I personally prefer LED backlit monitors, as they do not strain my eyes as much, perhaps contributing to added productivity. What are your thoughts?

By Max on 2011/03/04

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Max. I have been toying with the idea of adding a second screen for the very reasons you mention above. I think that it would especially be useful when using accounting programs and reviewing performance reports. In fact, a 2nd screen would also help to keep my place when switching between tasks because even with the best of intentions you can indeed sometimes catch me multitasking in front of the computer. My colleague loves his laptop + 2nd screen set up!

By Debra on 2011/03/04

Using a laptop and a monitor is an excellent idea, especially if you use a laptop instead of a pc as your work machine.

By Max on 2011/03/04

Can’t argue with that, Max. I have however been using my iPad a lot more than my laptop since I purchased it.

By Debra on 2011/03/04

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About this Article

Posted by Debra Sunohara
Posted on March 4, 2011

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Categories: hr & talent management, lessons learned, productivity, project management