Multi-tasking: Yea or Nay?

Ah, the debate over multi-tasking continues to rage. Is it productive? Or is that speed an illusion of productivity? Is it required for success in business today, or is it just kind of addictive? In his daily roundup of relevant articles, Michael Sampson includes one from about this activity.

First, let’s define multi-tasking. Literally, I say it means doing two or more things at once, such as responding to email while talking on the phone and listening to a conference call on mute. A more conservative definition is moving on to another task before the first one is completed.

I am generally against the first kind of multi-tasking, unless you are clear that only one of the tasks, at any given point in time, is being done well (and if the person you’re talking to doesn’t mind that you don’t hear half of what he’s saying).

The second variety can work quite well. Again, there’s a semantic issue. Are we talking about switching tasks every 20 seconds or every 20 minutes? It also depends on what kind of work you do. Not everyone spends the day writing in-depth reports. Work can be a barrage of rapid fire tasks.

I stand by my opinion that some multi-tasking is unnecessary. People do it because they like the rush. They crave the fast pace. If your boss is that kind of person and you’re not, whoa, you could be in trouble.

The question of whether or not multi-tasking is a good idea is less important than asking how it’s being done. If multi-tasking sucks you away from important-but-not-urgent work into urgent-but-not-important work, it’s not so productive. However, if you can quickly weigh alternatives and reprioritize on your feet, I think it’s a valuable skill.

Bottom line: take a moment to consider whether the next task is the most valuable use of your time right now. Once you do that consistently, you can multi-task to your heart’s content.