Can You Ever Be Effective At Multitasking?

July 17, 2013

Multitasking is often seen as the ultimate skill for getting more done. Whether you are an advocate for giving your full attention to one thing or juggling a series of activities the fact is that our brains can only focus on a limited amount of information.

Psychologists tell us that out of the 2 million pieces of information that bombard our body at any one time, we can only truly focus on 7 plus or minus 2 pieces. This means that our short-term memory limits us to between 5 and 9 pieces of data.

The choice is therefore whether to use these all at once and spend quality time on one activity or dilute the attention between more than one.

To help you make your own decision we outline some of the other arguments for and against.

In Favour Of Multitasking

Traditionally thought to be the province of women, some jobs appear to require an ability to switch between different activities at short notice.

Some describe it as compartmentalising things so they are still separated in the brain. Money and commodity brokers often possess this ability in a rapidly changing market.

For others it is about increasing their awareness so that they can still capture other things that are going around them but with lesser focus. This requires using the peripheral vision we often use when we are driving. Sometimes described as the NOW state in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) terms, this requires us to ‘stay in the moment’. The idea behind it is that in order to be aware of things around us at any one time we need to switch off all the other things going around in our head. These might include worrying something that happened in the past as well as what is going to happen in the future.

The NOW state is often used by military personnel or people practicing martial arts where an awareness of everything around them is essential.

In Favour Of Single Tasking

For some people and for some jobs, single tasking is far preferable to multitasking as greater focus can be applied. Working on something involving great detail can be hard to accomplish when total focus is not dedicated to it. This can also apply to jobs which would be dangerous if you also tried thinking about other tasks.

The benefit of spending all your time on a single task is the logical flow of ideas. Interruption is usually blamed where people lose concentration and ‘lose their flow’. Planning and problem solving might be an example of where some people prefer to shut out everything.

Speaking to colleagues especially team members is a good example where we should be single tasking. When people realise that our full attention is not focused on them, they start to feel undervalued and dis-engaged. The consequence of this is that people stop interacting and productivity or cooperation wanes.

We have looked at argument for and against multitasking and the jury is still out. It usually comes down to individuals and the different ways that people think. The difficulties arise when other people don’t like the way you think or behave. The real proof is the end result. People who multitask usually get things done and are likely to make a mistake or two. People who single task will probably produce a better quality end product and as a natural consequence take longer. In the end the choice is yours!

Many thanks

Chris Gale

Director of Training at MTD Training

(Image by David Castillo Dominici at

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