Multi-Tasking Shouldn’t be a Job Requirement

April 20, 2010

Job descriptions frequently list the ability to “multi-task” as a requirement in one way or another. What does this really mean? And should those job descriptions require something else?

As I pointed out in a previous post, Task-Switching is for Computers, not Humans, computers are much better at multi-tasking than humans are. This is because computers are designed to multitask. When a computer switches from performing one task to another, it saves the entire state of the task being switched out, enabling the computer to literally pick up where it left of when it returns to that task.

We humans aren’t that good at task-switching. We need ramp-up time to get ourselves back to the state we were in before we switched tasks, causing us to lose productivity. The more task-switching that we perform, the greater the productivity drain.

How much productivity we lose is a function of other things, like the type of work being performed. We are much more effective at multi-task with simple activities, like scheduling meetings, ordering lunch, and responding to simple questions.

As Jurgen Appelo pointed out recently in his post, In Praise of Multi-Tasking, there are some projects actually support one another, and Jurgen asserts that multi-tasking between each one improves your overall performance due to cross-pollination. I agree with Jurgen that cross-pollination is a plus, but I don’t agree that task-switching improves actual productivity – unless you need a break.

There are studies that demonstrate that people need to mental break to get their concentration back. A short break doing some web surfing can make you a happy, productive employee. Task-switching in this respect is a good thing.

Switching between related projects (not tasks) will keep you productive in the grand scheme of your entire project portfolio. I think that this is what Jurgen is really talking about. The key here is to do so when you reach a good point to set the current project task aside, so that you don't lose valuable time remembering where you left off.

Since very few of us have only one priority to deal with in our lives, the reality is that we need to manage multiple demands of our time. What is a priority at 8:00am, for example, (your job) may not be the same priority at 6:00pm (your significant other). We all need to allocate slices of time to our various priorities to maximize our effectiveness.

It is a question of who controls the interrupt.

If you control the interrupt by taking a break to do something else, or to switch to another project when you reach a good breaking point on a current task, that's productive. If someone else interrupts you while you are in the middle of writing a blog post or programming a complex algorithm, there will be a cost in terms of your productivity.

Multi-tasking is really all about your ability to handle multiple inbound requests of your time. Instead of attempting to multi-task, you should prioritize the requests and deal with them as productively and expediently as possible.

Being productive involves little tricks like dealing with e-mail only once or twice during the day and not on a continual, real-time basis that will divert your attention from an important task at hand. Or taking appropriate breaks. Or working at home or in some other closed-door location to prevent interruptions. This is true for independent tasks and tasks where you are collaborating with others.

Multi-tasking can be abused in the workplace. If you are interviewing for a job, it would be wise to probe your prospective manager about the nature of this requirement if it is present on the job description. And ask to talk to some of your potential peers if they are not a part of the interview process. Do they have the appearance of being run ragged? What sense of accomplishment do they have in their work? Do they feel that they are performing valuable, important work that they are proud of?

Extreme multi-tasking will keep you very busy, but it will bring a lack of accomplishment. You can quickly determine if you are walking into a bad situation by keeping your eyes open and asking a few questions of your own during the interview process. Just make sure the meaning isn't something along the lines of:

"We want the ability to interrupt your work to put you on another, completely unrelated task at our sole discretion. And by the way, we expect you to complete the assignment that we just interrupted in the exact amount of time that you estimated.”

In terms of the job descriptions, the “ability to multi-task” is a poorly-worded requirement. We should be asking for someone who is “able to prioritize and work tasks to completion.”