In the Knowledge Worker Age—which thankfully I think we are coming out of—it meant a lot to be known as a ‘good multitasker’, or someone who can handle several things at once. As it turns out though, there is no such thing as a good multitasker. There are people who try to do several things at once and screw up all of them to some degree, though.
Turns out that you’re actually decreasing your productivity as much as 40 percent when you are handling two or more things at once, or if you’re switching back and forth. Recent research also suggests that frequent heavy multitaskers have trouble tuning out distractions. Personally, I don’t think that’s their fault initially. I think the age we live in and what our expectations have been have all given us a job-borne case of ADD. We’re expected in the corporate world to handle several things at once. When I managed a team at NationsBank in the mid 90s, I was expected to handle several things at once like that. I didn’t do it well, because I would miss things in a detail oriented job. Multitasking sets you up for failure in a heavy detail oriented job. One of my later jobs at a financial firm was the exact same. The job description asked for folks who could multitask, but then at the same time, gig you for missing intricate details. I’m not saying it’s impossible to multitask, some people clearly can. I’m saying that it’s more likely that you miss little but important things, as studies have shown. Additionally, that’s just business. There’s a reason you shouldn’t go futzing around with your radio or text and drive. You take your attention off what you SHOULD be doing, and that’s just one thing: Driving.
If only we took the same approach in business. We should. Everyone would be happier in a single tasking world. Results would be better, there would be less time lost.
From a front facing customer service standpoint, think about how that can affect your customer relationships. Here’s a personal example: I wanted to change my cell phone plan and add a line for my autistic son, who will be working outside the home this year. He knows how to use an iPod Touch, so I thought the best phone would be an iPhone. However, there were only two people at the kiosk working that day,and they were flitting about trying to serve four sets of customers simultaneously, with only two computers that were for some reason barely working. Everyone had something different they wanted to do, so it might have made better sense to follow one path for one customer to resolution, then move on to the next one, and apologize for the delay with each customer. Instead, they tried to handle everyone at once, which not only took longer, but they made many mistakes. I ended up calling to correct one on my bill the following month because somehow they missed changing one of my lines. I wonder how they missed that? By fracturing their attention. You run the risk of fracturing accuracy, and in the end, your productivity.
Follow one path until that’s done, for best results. THEN start on your next task.