I recently read an article posted on LinkedIn about the dangers of multitasking. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the author asserted that there is a loss of efficiency and quality when we attend to more than one task at a time. As an instinctive “monotasker,” I couldn’t agree more; I was ready to grab my pitchfork and proclaim, “Down with multitasking!” But as I considered the habits and routines of my peers in the workplace, I couldn’t help but wonder if this advice would fall flat with some of them. While I usually tackle tasks in a systemized order, completing one before starting the next, I’ve worked with masterful multitaskers who can juggle priorities and execute simultaneous work-streams. In fact, in an “always-on” world, with the sheer volume of information to be dealt with in multiple channels, devices, applications, and social media, it’s almost impossible for any of us not to multitask in some way or another throughout the day: half listening to a conversation, half processing our response to an unwelcome tweet, etc.
I’ve read countless best-practices articles in support of multitasking, touting this model or that, promising more output or better output. Ever since the dot-com boom, multitasking has not only been a bragging right for many new job applicants, but in some workplaces this ability sometimes feels like an expectation for incoming candidates, a quality sought by every headhunter. Of all the content I’ve read on successful and productive work environs, nearly all suffer from the same bias: that there’s only one right way to work, and that way should work for us all. It stands to reason that this isn’t true, nor is it that simple. Here’s why:
Strictly speaking, there are two crowds out there: those who prefer to work independently and those who draw energy and ideas from working in group settings. Neither mode is better or more efficient—it’s simply a matter of what works best for the individual in question. As an independent, I value the time it takes to prepare for discussion and the quietude required to contemplate issues and have an aversion to the mental scramble that tends to happen when a group of folks is shouting out thoughts off the tops of their heads. Dreadful. However, I appreciate that there is another contingency that thrives through collaboration, that enjoys floating half-baked ideas out to a team and riffing on them in real time. This group revels in the vitality of social interaction and is most productive in a populous environment. And (drumroll please) it’s ok to work either way.
As in: past, present, future. If we were to bifurcate types, the first would be those who consider themselves deeply practical, who prefer to focus on matters of fact, and who base their decisions on learnings from concrete past events and perceptions of the present situation. This group is most productive when they are confronted with real-world problems that require pragmatic solutions. The second group, of which I am part, might feel limited by focusing on that kind of information at hand and show a tendency to abstract, have a desire to imagine new possibilities, and feel more comfortable sorting through mental exercises in a hypothetical realm. We seek to expand the pie before dividing it. Again, neither way of approaching work is necessarily better, and in fact these two models can very much complement one another in a heterogeneous atmosphere.
Some of us run hot; some are cool customers. My boss is passionate and inspirational. He places a lot of emphasis on values, how people feel, and what makes them tick. There’s no question that he built a successful career on being able to navigate the nuances of human interaction and drive consensus by appealing to social and emotional motivations. To him, I imagine I sometimes appear unresponsive, impersonal—heck, he’s even used the term “binary.” I take no offense to that, because I’m part of a group that prides itself on its ability to confront a situation with utmost objectivity. This group, by contrast, puts more emphasis on cold, hard facts, often prioritizing reason over feelings. It’s harder to get a rise out of us, but not for lack of care—we just don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves. Over the years, increasingly recognizing our differences, my boss and I have learned how to volley those mindsets back and forth and leverage each for the betterment of a given cause.
As Newton’s first law of motion states, “Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, while objects in motion…well, they want to just make a decision and get on with it.” Ok, maybe that wasn’t all Newton, but the idea still holds. Each of us has a different propensity for the time it takes to reach a decision or desired outcome. Take my wife, for example, who just last week purchased a pack of double-A batteries online. Where she could have easily found it at the drugstore down the street, she instead scoured through Amazon, BestBuy, and a small rolodex of other websites until she found the best deal. She views this level of comparison shopping as necessary, and in fact I suspect finds some measure of joy in it all. Me? I can do without all the fuss. Find something that fits the need, commit to it, and move on. We’ve frustrated one another on more than one occasion—from her perspective, I’m too quick to judge, too dismissive of the alternatives, and too comfortable missing out on a potential opportunity. From my perspective, if the cost (in this case, measured in units of time) outweighs the benefit (dollars saved), then it’s better to just settle on something and make peace with it. Neither way of approaching options and decision-making is “right,” per se. Each has its merits and its benefits, but knowing that we are different in this respect has helped us negotiate with one another more effectively and learn to be open to different styles.
Each of these examples depicts axes where we can plot ourselves, a spectrum that can easily be generalized from introvert to extrovert, pragmatist to idealist, monotasker to multitasker. However, when we pull back and look at all the possibilities, we arrive at the unique complexion that illustrates our work/life habits and can be used to understand each other as professionals. There are a number of psychological theories and assessments that attempt to formalize and typify exactly what these complexions are and what they mean.
So now back to the question of multitasking: is multitasking “bad”? Maybe for some, but maybe not for others. The more important question is, does it work for you? Are your work habits aligned with your individual preferences, your style, and your strengths? Are you aware of those habits and how they might be perceived by, and ultimately affect, your coworkers? And perhaps most of all, are you aware of the differences in your approach compared to your peers’ in such a way that it can be utilized to benefit the whole? To always seek balance and harmony, to create a rich and diverse working environment by accepting and embracing differences… that, and that alone, is the best productivity advice I can offer. Diversity in work habits is essential for creating a productive work environment, so it’s important to embrace what makes our habits and routines unique, relative to our individual personalities. In a phrase, productivity is personal.