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Why Multi-tasking Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be

February 14, 2013

By: Carletta Clyatt

MultitaskingOk, I'll admit it, I'm thrilled with the recent study findings at the University of Utah reporting that people who multi-task the most are not very good at it.

Why am I thrilled? It's totally sour grapes. I can't multitask. At all.  If I'm talking on the phone, I'm generally sitting completely still.  Sometimes I may doodle a little. If I'm on my cell, I pace in a rectangle (don’t ask me why). But I have no illusions that I'm actually accomplishing anything other than talking on the phone. Sometimes, when I take notes while chatting with someone, I'll find that I have written down everything... everything that I said! Yup, there's my name and phone number. Oh yay, I underlined my address. Thank goodness, I got that info.

I think single-taskers try to keep our deliberate, non-juggling ways on the down low. The ability to focus on one thing at a time is not exactly sought after. Managers today want someone who can shift between 80 different tasks and who won't freak out when every day procedure suddenly changes. People like me don't fit in with the corporate idea of an effective worker.

It turns out, according to this study, that most self-proclaimed multi-taskers don't either.

In the study, co-authored by David Sanbonmatsu and David Strayer, participants were given a variety of tests and questionnaires to gauge their ability to multitask effectively and rate their perception of how well they multitask.

Here's what they found:

  • The people who performed best generally do not multi-task. They were most successful because of their ability to concentrate on the task at hand.
  • People who multi-task the most don't necessarily do so because they are good at it, but because they have trouble blocking out distractions and focusing on a single task.
  • The more people multi-task, the less successful they are at it.
  • 70% of people surveyed thought they were above average multi-taskers, which is a statistical impossibility.
  • Multitasking correlates closely with sensation-seeking, meaning that people do it to avoid boredom, even if doing so detracts from their overall performance.

So what does this mean in the office?

  • The folks who dislike multi-tasking the most, might be the best at it because they already know they have to pay close attention to do it. Sidenote: Just because they can do it, doesn’t mean they will like to or feel comfortable doing it.
  • The act of multitasking itself is not necessarily a skill; it might be a sign of a concentration problem. So, if you see someone feverishly working on a bunch of projects, you may want to check if they are actually getting anything done.
  • Not surprisingly: quantity does not equal quality.
  • Employees might not have a clear idea of how well they actually can multi-task.
  • If someone has five unexciting assignments to handle, they might figure out a sixth, seventh or eighth more interesting thing to do.

Of course, the WAY some employees multi-task today does not really correlate with the corporate ideal of a multi-tasker, anyway.

The boss wants a dynamo employee who can talk on the phone while typing up a memo, filing papers and responding to a client email. What they might get is someone who can send a tweet, while composing a text, listening to Pandora and updating their Facebook status.

So maybe it's ok to be the single minded, plodding single-tasker that I am. I could use this information as an excuse to gloat.

I could, but I've got six reports to edit and someone just interrupted me, so I am freaking out.

Carletta Clyatt

Carletta Clyatt, a popular seminar speaker, is the SVP at The Omnia Group. She offers clients advice on how to manage more effectively and gain insight into employee strengths, weaknesses and behaviors. For more information about employee behavioral assessments, call Carletta at 813-280-3026 or email:

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