The Pros and Cons of Multitasking

Updated February 27, 2023

The capacity of the human brain to perform multiple tasks at the same time has always intrigued psychologists. Multitasking is a valuable skill for employees to have and one that employers seek.

In this article, we discuss what multitasking is, the purpose of multitasking research and the pros and cons of multitasking in the workplace.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is the simultaneous performance of more than one activity. Multitasking entails handling different tasks, shifting attention from one activity to another or performing two or more activities in quick succession. Here are some examples of multitasking in various industries:

  • Speaking on the phone while gesturing at someone

  • Taking several customer orders in a restaurant

  • Checking all the vital signs in a patient

  • Talking to customers over the phone while entering data into the computer system

  • Working on a presentation while discussing work-related tasks

While it is an essential skill in the workplace, multitasking can be counterproductive, especially when some tasks take longer or produce undesired results. Even so, multitasking is a learnable skill that professionals can get better at with time and constant practice.

Read more: The Art of Multitasking: Definition + 25 Examples

What is multitasking research?

Multitasking research refers to studies conducted by researchers aiming to understand how the demand to accomplish simultaneous tasks affects the human brain. Multitasking research has moved apace with the increasing demand for multitaskers in the workplace.

The proliferation of technology has made work easier but has also increased distractions. This has piqued the interests of researchers such as psychologists interested in understanding how the human brain works in relation to such distractions.

What are the pros of multitasking?

Here are the advantages of multitasking:

Saves time

Multitasking can save you time by allowing you to combine separate tasks. For instance, you may type minutes while still sitting in the meeting instead of taking handwritten notes and typing a final copy later on. Doing separate tasks one at a time can lengthen the completion time of tasks and projects. Multitasking may shorten the time to completion and enable you to create more time for other things.

Saves money

Multitasking can help you save money in several ways. By doing several tasks simultaneously, you can eliminate the rationale of hiring someone to do the extra tasks. Oftentimes, having employees who can multitask reduces organizational costs in salaries and other employee benefits. For instance, if an employee is outstanding at customer service and operating equipment, they can handle the front office desk by answering customer concerns and operating the switchboard.

Increases productivity

Multitasking can improve productivity. If an organization has several employees who can effectively multitask, they are likely to get more done than those who cannot. This approach to work could lessen the time required for tasks and projects.

Employees who are better at multitasking may also be productive at home, allowing them to accomplish chores faster and get time to rest after a long day at work. The ability to do this may improve professionals' stress levels and enable them to produce high-quality results when they return to work the next day.

Prevents procrastination

Multitasking may allow you to achieve more on your to-do list and waste less time. For employees who prepare a daily to-do list, multitasking enables them to cross more tasks off the list, which is also a strong motivator. Multitasking can also keep you active, allowing you to avoid distractions as your mind is busy with other activities.

Increases brain power

Just like the body needs exercise, the brain, too, requires constant engagement. Multitasking is one way of keeping your brain active and boosting your brainpower. Multitasking challenges the brain continuously which can develop your mental stamina.

As you practice multitasking, the brain becomes more efficient in handling simultaneous tasks. This is why multitasking is a learnable skill for anyone, regardless of your current proficiency.

Works through distractions

Technology has made some work easier but has also introduced plenty of distractions. For instance, you may need to read and respond to official emails in the morning and update company social media accounts. While doing so, you may also face distractions from notifications on your phone.

Multitasking skills allow you to juggle between the two tasks despite the distractions. Being able to work through distractions is an important skill given the frequent distractions professionals face at work.

Allows for steady work progress

Multitasking allows tasks, projects and assignments to progress towards completion however slow the progress might be. In most cases, a slow rate of progress is better than a stalled task. This is important in tasks with a shared deadline or in projects that require concurrent or consecutive task completion before moving to the next stage.

Develops resilience

Regular multitasking may lead to constant pressure to get things done. Working in a demanding environment improves your resilience and ability to handle challenging situations. If you're used to such environments, you may become better at handling stress and increase your perseverance limits.

Increases employability

Multitasking can increase your employability as most employers would prefer to hire someone who can accomplish multiple tasks simultaneously. Showcasing your multitasking skills in your resume, such as how you have used the skill in an actual situation, might increase your appeal to a recruiter. Having excellent multitasking skills may even allow you to maintain your position during company restructuring.

Read more: 5 Ways To Highlight Multitasking Skills on Your Resume

Fosters better work-life balance

Employees who are better at multitasking are more likely to attain work-life balance. This is because they can complete their work on time, eliminating the need to work overtime or carry some work home. These professionals are also likely to multitask at home, allowing themselves more time to spend time with their family, take a rest and re-energize.

What are the cons of multitasking?

Here are some cons of multitasking:

Inefficient use of time during switching

Switching between tasks can lead to inefficient use of time. Although switch costs may be relatively small, they can cumulatively lead to significant amounts of time when people switch repeatedly between tasks.

A study by Rogers and Monsell (1990) concluded that people were still slower on task-switch than on task-repeat trials, even when given more time to prepare or engage in predictable tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient, but may actually take more time in the end and can cause potential errors.

Mental blocks

The human brain focuses most effectively on a single task at a time. Heavy multitasking may also lead to mental blocks, which can cost a significant amount of someone's productive time. Researchers at Vanderbilt University concluded that a neural network of the frontal lobe of the human brain inhibits information processing, severely limiting humans' ability to multitask.

Read more: 7 Multitasking Interview Questions and Sample Answers

Memory function

Multitasking can affect your brain's ability to retain information. One effect of multitasking is the overstimulation of brain function. By having to process too much information, the brain may not be able to differentiate what is important and what is less important.

Further, multitasking may blur the line between tasks that are urgent and those not urgent. The attempt to accomplish several tasks at once may lead to priority tasks subjected to longer queues along with less urgent activities.

Read more: How To Prioritize Tasks in the Workplace

Mental health effects

Multitasking can affect the mental health of multitaskers by causing anxiety and stress. By attempting to accomplish two or more tasks, professionals may experience anxiety about whether they're successful. Constant multitasking may lead to cycles of anxiety and stress, which can affect productivity in the long run.

Creative inhibition

People who multitask often have limited time to think of new ideas, such as how to tackle a task. Serial multitaskers are constantly oscillating from one task to another and as a study by the Harvard Business Review shows, such people exhibited significantly lower creative abilities than those who focused on a single activity for longer.

Ability to collaborate

Multitaskers' desire to accomplish tasks on their to-do list can significantly affect how they relate to others in the workplace. People who multitask are less likely to help a colleague at work in anticipation of losing track of their own tasks.

Multitaskers may also be less likely to engage in non-core activities at work or take a break between work sessions, hence affecting how they relate with coworkers. As professionals work to develop multitasking skills, they must also pay attention to maintaining their interpersonal skills.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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