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Multitasking: How to do it right

There’s no question that multitasking is more than just an expectation for today’s workers: It’s a necessity. Technology adds to the pressure to do many things at once by keeping people constantly connected to their work and creating an ongoing sense of communication urgency. (How often have you checked your email or tapped out a quick IM while doing something else? Perhaps you’re doing it right now.)

 However, while multitasking may be an in-demand skill, it can easily lead to big problems. Consider this scenario:

 The good … It’s Monday morning, and you’re on a conference call with your project team. After listening for a few minutes, you put your phone on mute. By the time the call is over, you’ve filed paperwork from the previous week, responded to several emails and made a to-do list for the rest of the day.

 Turns bad … You became so engrossed in other tasks that you missed the project manager saying that the client has asked for subtle but important changes to several key deliverables. In addition, the deadline has been pushed up to Friday. Because you weren’t listening carefully, you missed this information.

 Turns ugly … On Thursday, your project manager sends an email reminding you of Friday’s deadline. Panicked, you work overtime to finish your portion of the project. One problem: You didn’t address the client’s changes. The client is unhappy, the whole team looks bad and you’re in the doghouse.

 In fact, studies suggest people aren’t capable of multitasking in any meaningful way — and may even be less productive and more stressed when trying to do it. Of course, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t times when you feel you must multitask.

 Knowing that few professionals can swear off multitasking completely, here are a few tips to help ensure your efforts will lead to good results, and not an ugly situation:

 Prioritize your activities

Multitasking is a bit of a misnomer because most people are not actually able to do more than one thing at once. In reality, they do one thing, then stop, move to the next thing, stop again and then switch quickly to something else.

 Make it easier to move from one activity to another by understanding exactly what’s on your plate and the order in which they must be accomplished. List all the tasks you must get through today or even this week. Which are most important? Which have the closest upcoming deadlines? This will help bring some order to your multitasking process and make you more productive.

 Group similar tasks together

Multitasking can be especially inefficient when you’re trying to do several things at the same time that aren’t connected in some relevant way. Choose tasks that complement each other and, ideally, can help achieve a larger objective. For example, you might work on several to-dos for new marketing collateral — conducting online research, creating an outline and scheduling a meeting with the creative agency that will design the piece.

 Know when you can switch to autopilot

On any given workday, there will be times when you can switch on your mind’s autopilot and accomplish several things quickly without worrying about making a critical misstep. For example, just as you know you can walk and talk on your cell phone at the same time, you might be able to tidy your physical desktop and organize the icons on your computer screen in tandem.

 Some people even find that routine multitasking can help provide a much-needed mental break that can result in an unexpected brainwave that leads to a new idea or a solution to a nagging problem.

 The bottom line on multitasking: If a job requires your full attention, give it. Don’t attempt to multitask when trying to accomplish critical tasks, working on something new, or engaging in a meeting or phone call where you might miss something important if you aren’t completely focused. Multitasking should help you get ahead — not create more work for you or your colleagues because you were only “half-tasking” and trying to accomplish too much in too little time.


By Robert Half International

Robert Half International is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 350 offices worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit For additional career advice, view our career bloopers video series at or follow us on Twitter at

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