The Joy of Multitasking

A co-worker recently was whining about the difficulty of multitasking. I wasn’t surprised. He’s perennially late in completing his assignments, and likes the process of doing work more than the completion of it. He relishes long, complex process as much as some people enjoy the scenic route versus the fastest path on a road trip. 

A person like that, who likes to take his time, laboring over every detail, perfecting and pushing back against minutia, is the exact type of person who wouldn’t like multitasking. 

Fortunately, that’s not the case for many of us. In fact, many of us don’t have a choice—whether we like multitasking or not, it’s a necessity. However, it may not equally be a necessity in the workplace. Researchers have determined that while men and women may find multitasking equally hard, women find themselves doing it more often, according to new research published in the Harvard Business Review. “The study found that volunteering for what it called ‘non-promotable tasks’ at the office can actually shift your career into reverse. And the report showed that those who say, ‘Yes,’ to thankless tasks—such as planning holiday parties, filling in for absent colleagues, or serving on low-level committees—are 48 percent more likely to be women,” Maya Salam writes in The New York Times.

Some of the disparity in multitasking—the completion of office “housework” in addition to primary job responsibilities—happens because women “volunteer” to do it. That strikes me as funny because sometimes a woman “volunteers” because if she doesn’t, none of her male colleagues will do it. For instance, I do all the technical work for the Website I manage, and do invoices for the contributors (creating invoices on their behalf to facilitate payment so they continue writing for us). Those two tasks are ones that none of my co-workers—all men—have volunteered to do, and in at least one case, have directly said they wouldn’t.

The hesitation and resentment some have to multitasking is a shame because, in addition to it being a necessity in the modern workplace, it can provide advantages. How monotonous is it to do the same task for five hours or more? How much more joyful is it to switch back and forth among a few different projects, working on one while waiting for a call for another, or taking a break to alleviate boredom after a couple of hours of working on one project to work on yet another?

Multitasking means exposure to more ideas and greater opportunities to use your creativity and imagination. When you do one task for long periods of time, you can slip psychologically into auto-pilot mode, completing work without thought and engagement. Having a few different things to do at the same time keeps you more alert. You have a diversity of work you’re shifting between, so your brain can't be put on neural cruise control. 

One thing great multitasking does require, however, is a good memory. When training managers to assign balanced workloads to employees, you may want to address the question of differing neurological capacity. With more Baby Boomers than previous generations opting to stay in the workforce past 65, multitasking for some employees may be more difficult than for others. On the flip side, some of the younger generations may have short attention spans that make it difficult for them to multitask successfully. A shift to contract status for employees struggling to multitask could be one solution, allowing them to focus on specific projects and continue a career they love and giving greater opportunity to other employees for advancement. 

If you have a cohort of employees who are less adept and/or less open to multitasking, examine whether those employees are in the proper roles at your company. It’s time to reward those who do the most the best, rather than those who are held in great esteem, yet heavily carried by others.

How do you address the challenges, and opportunities, of multitasking? How do you train managers to assign manageable workloads to employees in an even-handed, efficient manner?

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