The other day, one of my friends mentioned to me that in her job search, many listings require the “ability to multitask,” as an actual job requirement.
Before landing in my current field, I spent 11 years in the service industry, the last five of them predominantly behind a bar.
For anybody who has worked in restaurants, you know multitasking is a must…
The bar in front of you is three deep. There is no barback today, just your co-bartender who is three deep on the other end. One of the kegs just blew, you need another bottle of vodka from the back room, there’s a stack of empty pint glasses that need cleaning. Some people in front of you need drinks, a couple of others need to close their tabs. A couple of people are pissed they’ve been waiting three whole minutes and you haven’t even looked at them yet and they’re clearly ready to be wasted. You have negative five minutes to do all of it, with loud music blaring somewhere overhead so that you can’t hear your own thoughts.
You’re just on autopilot, and you do it all with a smile on your face, pretending you don’t want to throw things at half of the drunks standing in front of you...
Once upon a time, I thought that was “multitasking,” but researchers actually say humans don’t really multitask, they just divert their attention from one thing to another. Inefficiently, at that.
“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said professor of neuroscience at MIT, Earl Miller. “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”
Miller went on to explain that the brain isn’t focusing on multiple things simultaneously, but rather switching between them rapidly. Similar tasks compete for focus from similar parts of the brain.
When humans try to do multiple things at once, the quality of each of those things deteriorates. Even if one of those things is done well, the quality of the other will deteriorate in compensation (Wickens, 1980). Attention definitely has a limited capacity, and the concept of giving something “110%” is nothing but a futile aspiration.
Not only is our attention incapable of being split simultaneously between two things, but overall productivity also goes down, some researchers estimate by up to 40%! We waste time acclimating to task #2 when we look away from task #1. This study showed that people lost significant amounts of time when they switched between tasks, and the amount of time wasted even increased as the tasks got more complex.
I recall being in college, sitting on my laptop in class, and pretending to take notes, when in reality I had Facebook open in one tab, notes open in another, email open on a third tab, and perhaps a couple of other things going on, as well. I was haphazardly listening to the professor, although I thought I was being a lot more attentive at the time. (Perhaps I was just training myself for that “real-world” job requirement of multitasking?)
With the prevalence of technology, multitasking may seem easy on the surface, however, this study found a negative relationship between the use of social technologies during class and homework and GPA among college students. As unfocused as I was at the time, I’m just glad I made it through college with a solid graduating GPA, considering all the “multitasking” I did during class.
So if your potential employer asks for “multitasking” as a required skill, what exactly do you tell them instead?
Practicing Mindfulness at Work
Instead of approaching productivity as an elusive ability to do multiple things at once, focus on doing one thing at a time, mindfully.
In Buddhism, mindfulness is seeing things exactly as they are in the present moment. I’m sure many of you are thinking, I already do that! However, many of you likely don’t actually. Our visions of the world around us are skewed by our limited attention spans, as well as memories, assumptions, goals, biases, judgments, expectations, feelings, emotions, and so on and so forth. We hardly pay attention to one thing long enough to truly see it for what it is, without judgment nor bias, and certainly without distraction.
Practicing mindfulness, or putting your focus and attention into one task at once, can be a challenge for the brain that’s been conditioned to think it needs to multitask in order to get shit done.
Even while writing this, I have been trying my darndest to only pay attention to the words I am typing, but thus far have been distracted by text messages from clients that needed immediate attention, my dog going nuts over another dog that was getting walked instead of him, my coffee getting cold and bitter, and a siren that just wailed by and warranted a glance out the window. I hardly think of most of these things as “multitasking,” but by definition, they took my attention away from the writing I am doing to whatever it was that was happening around me.
Studies have shown that those who practice mindfulness at work increased task endurance, completed tasks more thoroughly, and decreased multitasking, as well as had less negative task-related emotions. This (1) particular study looked at the staff of an insurance company and actually found that employees who practiced mindfulness had better overall sales performance than those who did not.
One day, when I start (another) company and get to the point of hiring employees, I will not require “multitasking” as a necessary skill. Instead, under job requirements, I will write, “the ability to do one thing at a time, mindfully.”
Perhaps if you are in the midst of a job search, like my friend I was talking to the other day, and your potential employer wants to require that you multitask, explain to them that multitasking takes away from productivity by as much as 40%, and doing one task at a time, mindfully, can increase not only productivity but work-related happiness as well. Tell them that you do one thing at a time 100% instead of half-assing two things simultaneously. (Feel free to re-word that into more job-interview-appropriate terminology).
(Unless you are going to be a bartender. I don’t know how to get out of “multitasking” in that case.)
(1) Seligman, M. E. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York, NY: Vintage Books. Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E
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