In the not-so-distant past, an employee’s ability to multitask was a prized commodity among employers. More recently, a variety of research studies have demonstrated that, in fact, multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:

  • A Stanford University study determined multitasking is not as useful or efficient as completing a single task at a time. Researchers also determined that under a regular barrage of electronic information, people are unable to focus, remember information or move from one task to another as well as those who take on a single project at a time.
  • A University of Michigan study showed there is a time lag of up to several tenths of a second each time the cerebral cortex shifts attention from one task to the next — evidence that big inefficiencies result from very tiny chunks of time.

Evidence continues to show that multitasking results in diminished performance for the simple reason that our brains can really only focus on one thing at a time. Managers may think they are getting more work out of employees by asking them to juggle many tasks at one time, but the end results are confusion, frustration and a greater tendency to make mistakes.

How to Manage Multiple Activities

So how can managers resist the lingering allure of multitasking and improve employees’ ability to successfully manage multiple tasks? Here are key suggestions:

  • Set priorities. Guide team members in assessing different projects and prioritizing them, so they can complete the most-pressing task and then move to the next.
  • Stick to no more than three things to do. Three tasks are more manageable than giving employees a stack of multiple assignments for various tasks that are all to be completed at the same time.
  • Schedule resources. It’s critically important to give employees as much time as you can to focus on a single task. This might entail a couple of days spent on Project X, followed by a brief period on Project Y and then returning to Project X. “It will feel as if they are jumping around, but in reality you are avoiding asking them to multitask,” consultant Alaa El Beheri says.
  • Reduce workplace interruptions. It’s impossible to avoid all workplace interruptions and distractions, but you can guide employees to adopt better work habits in this respect. First of all, don’t schedule time-consuming meetings during a period of approaching deadlines. Any meetings that must take place should be brief and conclude with specific action items that keep the project moving forward.
  • Also, reassure the team that specific breaks will be scheduled so they can keep pace with emails, texts and other work-related obligations. This way, they won’t feel they’re losing touch or remaining detached for too long from their electronic devices.

Lead by Example

The team watches its leader’s behavior closely, especially during times of high stress. Demonstrate your best “grace under pressure,” while also showing how you focus on completing one task before moving to the next. Employees will quickly grasp the value of adopting this approach to managing multiple projects and no longer strive for an illusion of productive multitasking.