Guest Post: Is Multitasking All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

By | Dec 1, 2010

Today’s article is a guest post from Wendy Stoneman.

You’re busy. You’ve got 12 things on your To-Do List. All of them have to get done today. In the middle of working down your list, the phone rings, emails messages come in, people stop by with requests – it’s a typical workday. That’s ok, you’re an excellent multitasker, right? You pride yourself on being able to get everything done – often at the same time. Here’s the bad news: you can’t actually multitask, and you’re less efficient for trying.

According to research, (yes, someone gets paid to study these sorts of things) what you’re really doing is serial tasking. You’re making high speed shifts in focus from one thing to another. Except in very special circumstances, the human brain just isn’t physically capable of fully focusing on more than one thing at a time. Each time you make a switch, you lose time. The more complex the task, the longer it takes to make the switch.

In some cases, the time costs of frequent switching are significant. Dr. David Meyer of the University of Michigan specializes in the study of what happens in the brain when a person tries to multitask. In a CNN interview Dr. Meyer reports that his study of the time costs of shifting can be “anywhere from 25 to 50 percent time increment to complete a task compared to what would be involved if you were to only concentrate on that task.”

In addition to the complexity of the tasks affecting your mental resources, the number of tasks you’re trying to juggle at the same time is also important. For each task you take on, you have less resources available to give it. Obviously, your results will reflect this lack of focus.

So what’s a busy admin to do? Your work isn’t going to change, and you still have those 12 things to do. Research shows that when you can dedicate 100% of your focus to one thing at a time, you’ll be done quicker and your work will be more accurate. When you’ve got a big project or a complex task, it pays to ignore other distractions. Don’t answer every email the second it comes in. Let the phone go to voice mail. Although you may not believe it, your company won’t go out of business if you’re unavailable for an hour.

Of course, you can’t isolate yourself for every project, but then some projects are more important than others. By prioritizing the truly important tasks and focusing completely on those – one at a time – you will improve your work product.

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About the Author

Wendy Stoneman lives in Vienna, Virginia, and works at a mid-size law firm in nearby Fairfax, VA, where she is a legal secretary in the corporate law division.  Wendy has worked in administrative roles for over 15 years in multiple industries all over the country.  See Wendy’s previous Guest Posts here.

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7 Comments so far
  1. Julie (2 comments) December 1, 2010 5:07 am

    I wish I had the luxury of choosing to multi task or not! It is required of me, i’m the executive assistant/receptionist. There are times I wish I could ignore the phone and visitors 🙂

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jodith and Jodith Allen, Tony Karrer. Tony Karrer said: Guest Post: Is Multitasking All It’s Cracked Up To Be? […]

  3. Valerie (1 comments) January 20, 2011 6:11 pm

    I would agree that focusing on one task at a time will help to get all the tasks completed faster. Furthermore, it will also help to reduce human errors which result from trying to balance too many things at once.

  4. Justine Tamar (1 comments) March 3, 2011 6:24 pm

    I always thought I was good at multi-tasking. It seems like I am getting so much done, but this article really makes me wonder how successful I really am, and how much more potential there is for improvement. Julie’s comment is also how I feel. The requirements of the job mean there will always be a certain amount of multi-tasking. I work for a online business card company and over the past year, the workload has been substantial. For those who are stressed, and if you are the one ordering business cards online, maybe this site will help. One less thing you will have to worry about.
    Justine Tamar´s last blog post ..Business Card Designs and Colors that Close

  5. Kimberly R. Harris (1 comments) May 8, 2012 7:32 am

    This is so true! I make less errors when I focus on one task at a time. I don’t start another one until I complete the first one. I do this when I’m speaking with customers as well. I don’t proceed to the next customer until I’ve taken care of the first one and satisfied him/her. All in all, less mistakes will be made if we focus on one task at a time!

    ~Kim Harris~

  6. kanban tool (2 comments) March 30, 2015 4:35 am


    A proper work flow management will force you to follow policies that you set yourself. I also believe that multitasking is the downfall of most employers who want to get too many tasks done at once thus producing a rather lower quality result than if they focused on one task at a time. A good tool and methodology for management will allow you to avoid these downfalls by creating an efficient work flow that matches your capabilities. Look into Kanban method if you would like to learn more how to use it properly.

  7. Patricia Robb (3 comments) February 24, 2018 10:46 pm

    I agree, multitasking is impossible! However, in the admin role we are going to constantly have things come up throughout the day. That’s the nature of our roles.

    I have found a good answer for me when I am interrupted is to turn my attention to the new task, deal with it, and then immediately go back to what I was doing. By dealing with it, it can be as simple as putting it in a pile to do later. I am constantly prioritizing work and interruptions throughout the day. You shouldn’t feel you have to drop everything whenever you have a request for something, but you need to do something with it.

    Some little things you can do to limit interruptions is turn off your email notifications. Your eye just naturally is attracted to it as it crosses the screen and then it is hard to resist looking at the entire message. Turn it off and that will be one less distraction. I usually come up for air at regular intervals and then do a quick scan of emails to see if there is anything that needs my immediate attention.

    Let the phone go to voicemail if it’s not a good time to answer it. Call display can be as distracting as the email notifications. When you recognize the number, it is hard to resist not answering it, but that is what voicemail is for.

    My only exception is if it is my boss. If the email or phone call is from my boss, then I do tend to it. I set a rule on emails from my boss so they come in with a special ring so I know to check those.

    And if people come by with a question or request, then I either deal with it right then, ask them to leave it with me and I’ll get back to them later or I tell them that I can’t help them, but if I can will refer them to someone else if I know there is someone better suited to handle the request.

    There will still be interruptions, but they don’t have to rule your day and I can still get my work done.
    Patricia Robb´s last blog post ..Viewing Gridlines in a Table in Word

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